I love China, really, I do. I love Chinese people.
Then there was that one time I had a miscarriage.
I cried many tears over the lost chance to play with the toes and fingers of my sweet twins. I noticed I stopped daydreaming, since all of those dreams now acted as grievances with my body. I also had culture shock with a vengeance.
Sometimes I need to get all of my thoughts out of my head so I don’t mull over them for hours. I do this most easily with writing, not talking. This is how the below essay came into being. I didn’t write it for this presentation or any other purposes other than to grieve and process my feelings about a people I love treating me so horribly, but with “good” intentions.
Ember Swift was looking for writers willing to present alongside her at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival. If I hadn’t already processed this grief in this essay, I probably would have said no considering the circumstances. I appreciated that she acknowledged that when she asked me to consider presenting.
If you weren’t able to come to the Bookworm Literary Festival, don’t worry. An extended version of my short story will appear in Knocked Up Abroad 2, an anthology detailing expat child birthing and rearing experiences. Ember’s piece appears in the first volume pulled together by Lisa Ferland.
In the anthology, I’ll be answering questions about their gender, names, reasons for my shock among others Lisa so aptly pointed out readers might have. Below is an edited version of what I presented last night.
My Foreign Miscarriage
“诶！他们死了！” Oh! They’re dead!
For the first time in my life in China, I wish I could truthfully respond, “我听不懂.” I don’t understand.
In disbelief and a faint hope that I misunderstood, I ask the translating nurse,
“Did she say they were both dead?”
“Yes, they don’t have heartbeats.”
As soon as she notices tears under the arm covering my face, she brings me tissues, “Don’t be so sad.” A procession of people suddenly appears in the ultrasound room.
I hear my prenatal doctor commenting. “ 是的. 他们都死了.” Yes. They’re both dead.
The nurse probes her, “她年轻, 是吗？” She’s young, right?
“是的。很年轻, 她已经有两个孩子.” Yes. She’s young and she already has two kids.
Angry from the chatter, I interject, “他们是男性还是女性?” Are they boys or girls?
The technician answers, “我看不见.” I can’t see.
The nurse states, “They’re in a bad position.”
The doctor questions, “她觉得他们什么时动?” When did she last feel them move?
I respond in English, “I felt them yesterday.” The nurse translates.
“不可能,” The doctor adds, “他们已经死了两个星期.” Impossible. They’ve been dead at least two weeks.
That sinks my heart desperately low. Two weeks ago? Could I really have missed that they stopped moving?
Later in the dark and silence of my hospital room, I jolt suddenly from a slow drift of weary sleep, frantically touching my stomach to see if I feel them. I put steady pressure on my womb with my hands. I shake my bulge gently. Nothing. I realize what I’ve been feeling has been their bodies shifting and trading places. I reach back to the only distinct memory of their kicks before that night. Several weeks ago, my daughter wanted me to hold her at church while I stood: her legs and my hands straddled the top of my bump. Even though I kept most of the pressure off of my belly, they kicked her, and the force almost knocked me back into my seat.
The doctor inquires, “她朋友来了吗？” Did her friend come?
The nurse whispers, “她自己来的.” She came on her own.
Sharon, the nicer translating nurse is by my side now, holding my hand. She searches my face. In return, I search her face gelled with worry. My tears pool and burn behind the dam of my eyes, preparing to leak, but I fight them. My face sours in battle. “Don’t worry,” she says. I only stare in response. Both nurses help me up. I wipe my belly and follow Sharon outside, averting my eyes from the pregnant women waiting for their turn in the ultrasound room; women who have nothing better to do than wait and study the bellies of other patients. I feel shame since my tears publicly disclose my secret.
Sharon walks and talks in imperfect English about what to do next. Thrice, she encourages me to contact family members before I decide to have the “surgery” at their hospital.
Sharon tells me to sit down in the waiting area and to call my family. She sits next to me with her face still gelled with worry.
“Don’t be so sad. You’re still young, you can have another,” she tells me.
I gently respond as I hold her hand, “I understand you are trying to make me feel better, but you shouldn’t say things like that to mothers. That doesn’t make me feel better, that makes me hurt more.”
Her face reflects horror and shock, but also reveals her genuine intentions.
I call my husband, then my supervisor, then my friend, then my husband again, then my husband’s boss. With each call, I cry, dry up and calm down; cry, dry up and calm down. Sharon interrupts me to tell me I need to call my insurance for preauthorization. I call and then hand her the phone once I realize explaining so soon to a stranger is too difficult in either language. I’ve already cried and dried up so many times now.
Approval is granted, so Sharon asks me to sign, agreeing to my own torment. She takes me to my sleeping room. Our first 24 hours of the 96 we spend trapped inside the hospital are filled to the brim with sober meetings with Chinese doctors; pestering, mixed-English questions from busy nurses; and phone calls from eager friends and acquaintances, wanting to express their condolences or to visit.
Our first group of visitors is a throng of student nurses, who have come to “study me.” My normally patient and ever-bearing husband forcefully says, “This is not the time for that. Please leave.” Friends who arrive need my comfort more than I need theirs, and one steely coworker surprises me with her quivering cry and quick breath. Even a superior forgets his propriety to argue the benefits of Chinese medicine versus Western ways. Without fear, I reprimand him, “Let’s talk about that another time.” In the face of death, the famous Chinese composure melts away.
In the 25th hour of our stay, I’m scared and grief-stricken as they wheel me on a bed toward the operating room, where I’ll be without a translator and without my husband’s hand to hold. I fight back tears as I glance at the nurses’ faces from under my blanket. One is an older woman, who looks at me with knowing, empathetic eyes. The other is a young man with Korean-style glasses and a shaggy haircut.
At the door of the surgical wing, my husband obediently stops, and another busy nurse continues on with me.
She asks, “小床在哪里?” Where is the baby bed?
The others ignore her.
She calls out, “嘿！别忘了小床!” Hey! Don’t forget the baby bed!
The old nurse hushes, “他们死了.” They’re dead.
The loud nurse’s eyes meet my eyes and linger. I wonder if she wonders if I can understand.
Inside the operating room, the older nurse leaves me with two young, fresh nurses and a stocky male nurse. They’re laughing and joking around. I wish that the older nurse had stayed and held my hand, or that I would have had the courage to reach for hers.
As everyone waits for the surgeon to arrive, two of the nurses busy themselves with something to do, while one fresh nurse comes to inspect me.
“你会说普通话吗?” Can you speak standard Chinese?
“一点点.” A little.
“你很漂亮.” You’re very pretty.
“谢谢.” I respond as usual. Thanks.
“你不要了, 是吧?” You don’t want them right?
“他们都死了.” They’re both dead. Tears begin to fall down the sides of my face into my ears.
As she tries to wipe my face, she hurries to say, “啊！别哭了！你很漂亮！” Oh! Don’t cry. You’re so pretty.
I turn away from her, disgusted, and she walks away.
I continue to cry, slowly, quietly letting out tears and whispering to my heart that this is goodbye to my twins. I’m telling them goodbye with this procedure; I feel like I’m ejecting them from my body. The older nurse returns to the room and comes back to my side for a second. She sees that I’m crying, but she responds with merciful silence. She is whisked away again to another duty.
The fresh nurse walks back toward me and sees I’m crying.
“别哭了！” Don’t cry!
“你是母亲吗?” Are you a mother? I ask her, hiding my irritation.
“我需要告诉他们再见但是我不要告诉他们再见，所以我不能别哭了.” I have to say goodbye to them, but I don’t want to say goodbye, so I can’t not cry.”
She doesn’t wipe my face, and she walks back to the desk station in the room. She doesn’t return to talk to me.
I cry angrily in my heart, “Oh my dear twins, I want you. I want to hold you. Your daddy wants you. We want to name you. Your brother and sister want you, too. We don’t want to say goodbye. We value you and treasure you. You are both unique and special. I cannot have others like you.”
The surgeon arrives to end my hospital bright white purgatory. Her ruby earrings and her ornate glasses match. I try to steady my breath and heartbeat when I see the needle. The needle is not small. I want to be able to watch so I can deal with my pain, but my lifted gown obstructs my view even with my neck weakly bobbing my head in the air above my bed.
The ruby studded surgeon looks at me and says, “一点点痛.” A little pain.
I’m breathless from the sting when she inserts the needle. I try to control my body to keep it from moving, as everyone yells “别动! 别动!” Don’t move! Don’t move! But every muscle tenses from the aching flood spreading across my stomach. I feel heat emitting from my body and sweat tickles my head at my roots in protest. As she moves the needle inside, I cry out in pain. Again they rebuke, “别动!” Don’t move! I wonder if Chinese women bear pain better than I do, or if the doctors lie to everyone. The rubies flash as the surgeon fills my womb with liquid. My stomach feels full now, but my heart is emptied.
After the insertion and filling from the second needle is finished, I’m not bothered for a few brief moments as the staff prepares for my move back to my room. I whisper, “Goodbye. I love you, both.”
After I am home again, I ask a Chinese mother and friend what she thinks about what was said during my hospital stay.
I tell her how others have said, “At least you have your body.”
“Do you know, your husband is great? He is a great man.”
“At least you have two children. Be thankful for them.”
I tell her how others scolded me about taking care of my body in the process of my grief.
She tells me she wouldn’t like their words either. She tells me that these doctors and nurses, and others, they don’t know what to say to comfort me. Especially for the elder Chinese, they have experienced famine, drought, and revolutions. They just want me to focus on what I have, focus on the good still in my life.
Birth and death are the most powerful, uncontrollable events we all experience in life. Birth and death humble us all. Birth and death connect us all. What can a baby say to birth or anyone say to death?
And for the second time in China, I wish I could truthfully say, “我不明白.” I don’t understand.
At the panel there were some issues that were brought up, like Chinese women being shamed for having “caused” the miscarriage by doing something wrong. If you have experienced a miscarriage, you did the best you could with what you knew to do, what more could you have done? I treated this pregnancy the same as my first two healthy “successful” pregnancies – what could I have done differently?
If you haven’t dealt with grief of your own – this post might be informative.