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Ghost Child
By Anita Phillips

It is always there beneath the surface, every moment of every hour. Just when I think I am okay, I realize that I am not, and unexpected tears fall from my eyes surprising me with the depth of my sorrow, even still.

I relive fragments of my baby's death; pieces float to the surface and submerge again. The pale face of an ultrasound technician, glances of pity as I rush past the nurses station, confusion over the simplest questions -- my address, my phone -- fumbling for keys to open the car door as my body trembles cold from the shock of it all. "You may elect to terminate the pregnancy," the neonatal specialist said. "There is no fluid. The heart has been beating too hard for too long. It will eventually stop." There is nothing that can be done when there is no amniotic fluid. When it is gone, it is simply gone. The baby dies.

Terminate or miscarry. Abort my baby before nature takes its course and my body goes into labor, delivering a stillborn child in a sea of blood and crisis. I never would have imagined that this child I wanted so desperately and had tried for many years to make would not be perfect, would not be whole. My wretched womb had betrayed me, becoming toxic and strangling; a prison suffocating my baby in dryness, like a fish without water gasping for breath.

Only two clinics in Southern California perform abortions in the second trimester. It takes three days and three brief surgeries to release a mature baby from the womb: the stitching in of small sticks of kelp, forcing the body to unfold and expel the hope of new life.

I sat in the lobby of the clinic filling out forms and disclosures, weeping into my husband's shirtsleeve. My swollen belly had begun to diminish beneath the weight of circumstance, beneath the affliction of randomness. "We take handprints and footprints to document the fetus," the abortion counselor explained. I imagined ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes inked in black, limp upon the page. "You may have a copy if you choose to see." But I could not choose to see. It was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of what I could bear, as if tangible evidence would make this baby too real, the baby we had not named, the ghost child I had carried for nearly six months.

Abortion. Termination. Bleeding. Cramping. Post Operative Recovery. Cremation. I elected to stop the baby's heart so he would not be delivered alive. Tragic mercy. The body was cremated, my baby's ashes joining those of other babies, some wanted, some unwanted; the ashes of agonizing choice. On the third day I went into labor on the operating table, praying for the anesthesiologist to emerge from behind closed doors; to deliver me into blackness, if only for a while. A Musak track crooned "Blue Hawaii" in the background, "…with so much loveliness, there should be love." The walls of the room seeped antiseptic yellow, an acrylic basket displayed fashion magazines touting "Holiday Chic," "Party Hair," and "What Every Woman Wants for Christmas." IV's, heart monitors, breathing tubes and catheters, bitter taste of anesthesia, involuntary contractions of my uterus, gloved hand of a nurse gripping mine. I succumbed to a drug-induced void. I awoke, my body vacant, dreaming I was being swallowed by quicksand in the middle of the freeway, cars screaming past, oblivious, indifferent.

I stayed in bed for two weeks, taking painkillers and sleeping pills trying to numb the pain; trying to silence the nightmares of crying, motherless babies; trying to suppress the visions of drowning in a shallow stream. How simple it would be to slip away.

Santa Ana winds filled the swimming pool with tree branches and leaves, started fires in the Malibu canyons, downed power lines throughout the Valley. It was unusually dry for November. Termites devoured the bedroom window frames. The plumbing system in the house backed up, regurgitating waste across the polished wood floors, gnarled elm roots overtaking the line were ground down and flushed away. The dog wandered aimlessly, tiptoeing around the silence, trying to find some semblance of normal. Lilies and roses arrived at the door, tokens of condolence from friends who understood that sometimes there are no words. My house filled with the fragrance of despair. "There will be another baby," my family consoled. "There will be another baby," I echoed in response. But I was unable to think beyond the hour and was glad another day had nearly passed.

There is perfection in grief. My hair fell out in clumps, my face I barely recognized, swollen and pale with hollow eyes. My mind hovered outside my body, floating in a realm of suspended time and selective amnesia. Guilt came and went as I blamed myself for not creating a healthy child, for stopping the heart that sought to live with such fierce determination that it had worn itself out with too many beats. The sadness was too large. I wanted to bear it all physically and gouge a wound on my body. I wanted to narrow the unutterable sorrow, the blinding shock, to a jagged tear in my flesh that would close and heal and lose color; a scar that would show only when I searched for it, a part of me that was permanent yet hardly there at all.

Upon my return to work I took the elevator from the lowest level of the parking garage, and pressed myself into the corner. Several coworkers stepped on at the lobby level, a group of men that did not know what to say. They made small talk about the holidays, stealing quick glances at my flat belly as if to confirm the truth -- the oddity of a suddenly vacant womb. A young pregnant woman in a yellow knit dress bustled in and selected floor 12. Everyone stared at the door in silence. I felt disfigured, my body ill fitting; the flesh about my waist bloated, my breasts engorged, conspicuous. The woman in the yellow dress looked flushed, tired, normal. Simply normal, I thought, the unassuming miracle of simply normal.

Upon my desk sat a stack of unopened announcements, reports, solicitations, inter-office memos, interspersed with notes from business acquaintances and peripheral friends; men and women from the office sharing private stories of grief as if offering me sacred recipes for bread: lost children measured like flour; sadness where the dough should rest. And I wondered if one ever truly recovers. The river of brokenness runs deep. I wade through the currents one day at a time, finding comfort in the redundancy of routine, sculpting a place for the ache to reside, seeking a morning when I might rise without heaviness. "Don't give up," they all tell me. "You will be whole again." A mother without a child, my arms are empty. The journey is slow.

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