“The fetus is small for nine weeks,” Dr. Chu said.
“Can she take vitamins?” Pete asked.
Jesus Christ. Vitamins? I wanted to scream in his face, our baby is DEAD, you fucking idiot!
“The baby should be bigger, and we should hear a heartbeat,” Dr. Chu said. She’d been
moving the wand over my belly but had stopped. “We’ll do a blood test to confirm, and
we’ll know for sure tomorrow morning. I’ll call you by nine with the results.” She
squeezed my arm and left the room.
Pete and I had driven separately to the appointment. I’d dressed knowing we’d meet in
the courtyard and he’d be checking me out from afar. I wore a black jersey skirt that
swung around my thighs in a flirty way and a skinny tank that accentuated my newly-
fuller breasts. Pete liked the curves pregnancy added to my normally angular frame. I’d
pressed my breasts into him when we hugged, feeling the California sunshine on my
bare shoulders and a surge of warmth between my legs.
“Who’d have thought we’d be here again?” we’d said.
Dr. Chu called just before nine saying my hormone levels were high, and for a moment
I let myself believe we’d escaped.
“Your levels are high because your body doesn’t know the fetus has died and is still
creating pregnancy hormones and most likely will until you have the surgery to remove
the fetus. You need to schedule the D&C within the next week,” she said, giving me the
number. How could I’ve been so stupid? So smug? You couldn’t let the universe know
when you were flying high, everyone knew that. She’d swing her lighthouse beacon of a
head around, shine her light on you, and you got the call that someone had lost a job,
entered hospice, or a fetus had stopped growing. It was best to fly below the radar.
Play it cool. I hadn’t played it cool. We hadn’t told family and friends yet, but I’d found
every opportunity to tell strangers. Running a mud run at eight weeks, I’d avoided the
obstacles, patting my belly as I ran by and yelling to the course staff, “Running for
I thought back to the day before. How I’d purred up against my husband. The skirt, the
tank-top, the Rocket Dogs. I was replicating the way I’d dressed when I was pregnant
with Jack, imagining that if I could dress the same, look the same, then we could still
be the same people we were four years ago: young, carefree, even pregnant! It would
be like we’d never left California. (Iowa had been particularly hard on us—the long,
cold winters had given our new marriage a nasty case of frostbite we were still trying to
thaw out.). But I was a fraud. We weren’t young; I was forty, Pete forty-six. We weren’t
carefree; we were several years into our marriage and had the resentments to prove it.
And we weren’t pregnant.
I’d been careless. Was it the blue cheese dressing on Jack’s salad? I’d been so
nauseous, and it was the first thing that’d looked good in two days, and I just inhaled
it. Was it when the pedicurist at Happy Nails started to massage my ankle? She’d
barely touched it when I yelled out, “No!” but there was a pressure point that if
massaged could cause a spontaneous miscarriage, right? I’d heard that. Or had it been
the mud run? The field had been so deep I’d lost my shoe. I knew you could work out
while pregnant, but why did I always feel the need to prove that to everyone?
Mom came to help with the kids before the D&C. I handed her the reins and hid in our
bedroom upstairs. Channel surfing, I landed on Contact with Jodi Foster and Matthew
Has there ever been an on-screen couple with less chemistry? And what’s with Jodi’s
Mary Todd Lincoln ringlets? Stupid. I could do better.
I sent Marcia a text: “Time to talk?”
Marcia’s first two pregnancies had ended in miscarriage, and she’d learned the way I
had, at the nine-week appointment. When I found out I was pregnant, I stopped
calling or texting her and crossed my fingers she wouldn’t notice. I didn’t want any of
her miscarriage juju rubbing off on me.
Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-uh) and I met in college. I first saw her in Holmes
Dining Hall where everyone studied at night. She was standing next to a table of
Bainbridge Island guys. The Bainbridge guys wore fleeces and drove muddy Toyota
4-Runners. They went camping in The Cascades or floated The Yakima with a twenty-
four pack and a bong, on a moment’s notice. They intimidated me. I wasn’t a camping-
on-a-moment’s-notice kind of girl. Marcia was. And she was beautiful. Half Japanese,
half white, she had creamy skin and full lips the color of Rainier cherries. Her black
hair fell in waves to the middle of her back. Her laughter was generous and
unladylike. The Bainbridge boys were laughing at whatever she was saying and calling
her Marsh, wanting to be familiar with her like that. She was one of the guys, but they
all wanted to fuck her, too. I hated her on sight. And vowed to make her my best
She called from her office in San Francisco.
“I was pregnant,” I said. “But now I’m not.”
“Oh, babe,” she said.
We cried. Or she let me cry. She told me what I could expect during and after the D&C.
When she’d had hers—both of them—I hadn’t dug too deep. I knew that afterward, CK
had driven her home. He hadn’t really known what to say and ended up going to a late
breakfast with his dad. And she’d been sad. I felt bad about not having asked more.
The D&C was on a Friday in April.
When I woke up, I could hear the movements of nurses with patients behind the
curtains on either side of me. I could smell latex and the clean, warm-laundry smell of
my blanket. Pete was rubbing the top of my hand in compulsive circles.
“I’m fine,” I said.
On the way home, we stopped at our favorite Thai place in our old neighborhood,
wanting to be somewhere familiar, enclosed, dim. We took a booth, and the waitress
placed steaming cups of jasmine tea in front of us.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’ll be okay,” he said. “I’m worried about you.”
Growing up, “dramatic emotion” wasn’t encouraged. One of Mom’s admonishments
that caused me deep embarrassment was, “Stop being so dramatic.” Pete’s cut from
similar cloth. The youngest of five, he learned to make his case intelligently and
forcefully, but there was little time for drama. I’m a Major People Pleaser. I like to
show people how low-maintenance I can be. When I was in the hospital delivering our
daughter, the nurse asked me to tell her where I was, pain-wise, using the chart on the
wall. Zero was “Not hurting,” and showed a happy, smiling face. Ten was, “Hurts the
worst you can imagine,” and showed a crying face contorted with pain. My daughter’s
head was crowning and the doctor had just slipped his scalpel into my vaginal opening
and dragged the blade two inches toward my anus to give my daughter the room she
needed to make her exit. There’d been no time for an epidural.
“Where ‘ya at with the pain, hon?” the nurse asked. And I chose eight, “Hurts a whole
lot,” because choosing ten just seemed dramatic.
“I’m fine,” I said to Pete, ripping the tops off three sugars.
But I didn’t want to be easy or accommodating. I didn’t want any pieces left unsaid,
waiting to be spoken until the next right moment. I took a sip of my tea.
“Having a third baby was…you said you were done, but you were so excited. We saw
Jack and Kate as big brother and big sister to this baby, and we fell in love with that—
that picture of them. This baby was never supposed to happen! And I’ve been holding
up little hoodies and…now what?” I asked, raising empty hands, wanting my husband
to give me a different answer than the one I already had. “He’s just…gone?” I dropped
my hands and watched as tears fell and spread like ugly gray dye on the white paper
“I still want him,” I said. “I just still really want him.”
My older brother, Bob, was adopted in 1966, and I was adopted in 1972. In-between,
my parents adopted a baby girl they named Debbie. Debbie died just before her second
birthday. The understanding among extended family and friends was that she died of
SIDS. SIDS is listed as the cause of death on her death certificate.
When Debbie was a baby, Dad was head park ranger for Fort Canby State Park. Fort
Canby ran along the coastline of the southwestern tip of Washington State, where the
Columbia River roared, churning and spitting, into the Pacific. Dad, Mom, Bob, and
Debbie lived in what had once been the North Head lighthouse keeper’s house. Two-
stories tall and built to withstand unpredictable coastal weather, the white house with
brick walls a foot-and-a-half thick sat on a rocky jut one-hundred-and-fifty-feet above
the ocean. Some lighthouses signal dangerous coastline, hazardous reefs, or hidden
rocks, while others mark a safe harbor. The lighthouse at North Head signaled
“Didn’t it terrify you—living on a cliff?” I asked Mom after I had kids and realized that,
Holy shit, my mom had lived on a cliff one-hundred-and-fifty-feet above the ocean
with two toddlers.
“Not really. There was a big fence—six, seven feet tall and military-grade. The thing
was the gate—we were forever reminding people to close it when they left. I was more
worried about the windows with you kids (‘You kids’ could be any combination of Bob,
Debbie, and me throughout her life. Though I’m not yet born in this story, I’m still in
the mix.). The bedrooms were upstairs and the windowsills were just a few inches off
the floor. If one of you would’ve fallen…. so, I put two-by-fours over the bottom half of
your windows and painted them white.”
North Head was almost always enshrouded in a cold, damp beach fog that settled on
your skin. It didn’t burn off, exposing the sun’s warming rays, it rose, like a curtain,
revealing a grey and indifferent sky.
“Someone said there were a lot of suicides up there. Especially women,” Mom said. “I
used to drive down to Naselle and sit on a picnic bench just to feel the sun on my
The first lighthouse keeper, Alexander Pesonen, moved into the house in 1888 and
shortly after married a twenty-year-old Irishwoman named Mary Watson. Mary and
Alexander lived at North Head for more than twenty-five years. They were isolated.
The rain came in sideways. Howling winds were recorded at one-hundred-and-sixty
miles per hour. Due to unpredictable weather conditions, shifting sandbars, and rocky
reefs, ships aiming for the mouth of the Columbia capsized so often that the stretch of
ocean outside Mary’s kitchen window was dubbed ‘The Graveyard of the Pacific.’ The
bodies washed up in the cove below her house. The sky refused to comfort. In the
spring of 1923, Alexander took Mary to Portland, one-hundred miles inland, to see a
doctor. Diagnosed with “melancholia,” she stayed in Portland to receive treatment but
returned to North Head the first part of June. Her first morning home, Mary woke at
five a.m., put on her coat, walked out the door, and flung herself off the cliff.
Debbie was sick a lot; they were always taking her to specialists. They thought it might
be cystic fibrosis for a while, but that was eventually crossed off the list. But in
December of 1970, she got pneumonia. When she began seizing, Mom and Dad rushed
her to the shoebox hospital in Ilwaco. The doctor they were familiar with, Dr. Nease,
said not to worry, probably roseola, she’ll be fine. But the other doctor, the one with
the horrible bedside manner, offered no reassurances. They worked on Debbie
throughout the night in a room so small—a converted broom closet—that Mom and
Dad couldn’t be in Debbie’s room when the doctors and nurses were with her. So, they
spent pieces of the night in a waiting room directly across from her.
As her condition worsened, Dr. Nease told them, “If we can get her through sunrise,
the odds are in our favor.”
She knew before she knew. The searing electrical current started in Mom’s scalp,
coursed through her body exiting out her feet, and was accompanied by a crushing
sense of fear. She’d been slumped in the uncomfortable waiting room chair but sat up.
“Go see…” she said to Dad.
Debbie died at sunrise.
Mom’s parents drove down from Olympia. Her aunts from Pe Ell. Dad’s parents came
up from Longview. His mom ironed Debbie’s dress.
“Did you pick her clothes?” I asked Mom. “Or did you want someone else to do it?”
“Oh, no, I wanted to do it. She was mine to take care of. I took out her mint green dress
and her patent-leather shoes. The pendant Doc and Rita had given her with her initials
on it. I’ve always felt bad about the patent-leather. I wish I’d put her in little slippers.”
She doesn’t remember any of the funeral. She doesn’t remember much about the
months after other than she’d drop Bob at preschool and wander around town. She
remembers asking Why? of shopkeepers and coffee shop girls. She remembers
watching trials in the courthouse to have somewhere to be.
I didn’t really understand who Debbie had been to Mom and Dad, what they’d lost,
until Jack turned two. They hadn’t lost a silent infant swaddled in a blanket, as I’d
always imagined; they’d lost their little girl who giggled. Their girl who’d been so
proud because her hair had just grown long enough for ‘big-girl’ ponytails. (The
doctors shaved one of her ponytails off that night as they frantically searched for a
If you’re wondering if I grew up feeling like a replacement baby, I didn’t. Mom had a
way of making me feel like I was her favorite person in the world. I always felt loved.
Special. I knew she carried grief for Debbie alongside her love for me, but I didn’t feel
like those two things were all mixed up in each other.
I didn’t feel like a replacement, but I did feel like there was a ghost of sorts in our
family. There was little in our home to give me clues about this little girl my entire
family had loved but I’d never met. “Debbie’s your sister,” Mom told me. But it didn’t
feel true. I wanted her to be, but how could she be my sister if I’d never met her? My
parents kept the black tin box on the top of their closet. It’s where Mom kept
everything Debbie: her birth certificate, photos, cards people had sent, her death
certificate. I’d sneak the box down and hide on the far side of my parents’ bed to look
at pictures of her. My favorite was an 8 x 10, probably from her one-year session. It
was black and white, which made her seem like a baby from long-ago, though she
would’ve been just four years older than me. I’d study her face and her body for signs
of sickness. She had dark, kind of spiky hair; I thought maybe that was a sign. She
looked happily, sweetly not into the camera but just right of it. I knew she was looking
The first of December, Mom would bring the Christmas card tree down from the attic.
It was an old tree branch she’d spray-painted white and stuck in an MJB coffee can.
The base of the branch was supported by rocks my brother had collected from the
Christmas tree farm across the street, and the coffee can was covered in aluminum
foil and garnished with a big red bow. The idea was, you’d tape cards on the tree as
you received them, and by Christmas you’d have a big, full tree. The tree sat in the
same spot every year, on top of our Magnavox stereo—the size of a canoe—that lined a
wall in the dining room. Bob and I would take turns getting the mail and taping on
the cards. When it was my turn, I’d run out to the mailbox at the end of our gravel
driveway the second the mailman drove away. Then I’d open the cards, spreading
them out across our Oscar-the-Grouch living room carpet and organize them favorite
to least. I favored cuddly woodland animals. Mom had a soft spot for Currier & Ives.
If a card had glitter, it immediately went into the first place position. Ranking
complete, I’d get the Scotch Tape out of the china closet and tape the day’s card onto
the branches. When Bob and I were both little, we’d fight over whose turn it was, but
as he got older he didn’t really care. The lack of competition diluted my enjoyment a
little, but mostly I was happy to put every card exactly where I saw fit.
Every year, Seattle Children’s Hospital sent us a Christmas card, acknowledging that
Mom’s dad had made a donation to their SIDS research center. The card thrilled and
scared me. It thrilled me that I was in the loop enough to know it was about Debbie
and that I should approach the card with reverence. It scared me because the logo for
Seattle Children’s Hospital (or maybe just Seattle Children’s SIDS research?) bore an
infant with its arms sticking straight out from its shoulders and its torso and legs
swaddled in a white muslin-like cloth. The baby’s head, the outstretched arms, and
the swaddled torso and legs made a perfect cross. I didn’t know: was the baby
supposed to be dead? It looked like the kind of cloth that would maybe be used for
burial. But why would they send such a sad Christmas card to thank people for
sending them money? Was it supposed to make you have feelings of Jesus? It was
hard to tell, and I wasn’t going to ask. Every year the card came with the dead baby,
that in my mind was Debbie, and I taped it to our tree.
Debbie didn’t die of SIDS. SIDS was a catch-all for baby deaths of unknown cause in
the 1970s. By today’s medical standards, any baby over the age of one wouldn’t be
ruled a SIDS death. When I was older, Mom told me that Debbie’s pediatrician had
said that Debbie died because she had a grossly underdeveloped vascular system—the
system of a seven-month-old fetus—and it just couldn’t keep up with her nearly two-
year-old body any longer. He told her the most likely reason for an underdeveloped
vascular system was maternal drug use during pregnancy, and in Debbie’s case, he
thought her birth mom had used cocaine.
Seven-foot-high chain-link fence, brick walls a foot-and-a-half thick, boards over
windows, Close the gate close the gate close the gate. The worm was in the bud.