In a smell, in the cold, in a luminous red.

In wave after hourly wave of wrenching cramps that wrung our tiny tiny baby and her warm bloody nest, way too early, piece by wretched piece from me. That long cold night that followed the long quiet day when we lay together in bed, wishing time to stretch and slow, just so she could find a firmer grip. A day that felt – still feels – as long as the gumtree outside our bedroom window is old, the very tree I visualised inside in my womb for her, urging roots deep and strong to take hold, to draw strength, to live on.

That long cold night when I’m again – is it four or five times now? I want to be clear, I want to remember, I mustn’t forget – sitting on the toilet, hugging the solid trunk of my love who’s jammed in there, standing beside me, rubbing my back, stroking my hair, shivering too, and I’m gripping him like a coconut gatherer, head buried in his middle, then thrown back with another swell of pain, then howling back into his accepting belly as each small piece of her ten weeks of possibility is spat out, to land in the nest of sawdust, leaves and grasses waiting beneath me.

The words don’t cut it. Lost. Miscarriage.

Correction – actually, they do.

The words cut it right out, obliterating the experience itself. They cut those hours, screw them up and throw them away. All very tidy. All very clerical. All very miscarriage of justice administrative oversight. No gushing blood, no gut-wrenching pain, no guttural animal howls. No – all quiet, neat and tidy. And definitely no animals allowed.

I weep as I fold each blood-soaked pad and put it in the bin – I’m putting my baby in the bin, I’m putting my baby in the bin – and my dear friend (now a surprise birthing companion of the saddest sort), who has come over to help rub my back, to give my love a small break before the night I know lies before us, my dear friend sighs with such gentle compassion as I sob while my mind sees only images of the discarded – I’m putting my baby in the bin – and the unloved. But I love her. Already, I have loved her.

Several days after the intense peak of my miscarriage (which continued on, still bleeding at ten days – but that’s good, I’m deeply grateful for the natural process my GP allowed – no quick d and c scrape it out and off you go) … several days after that cold autumn night, I sat at my desk, trying to compose an email to the close friends and family who knew about the pregnancy. I didn’t want any of them shocked by our news when they next kindly called to see how the nausea and house building was going. Without thinking, I found myself writing we lost our baby. I stopped. The words had found me.

What a ridiculous, deceptive phrase. Sorry, how very careless of me – I seem to have lost my baby. Now where did I leave it last? Let’s backtrack; last time I checked it was in my uterus, but now it seems to be missing. Silly me. I will try to do better next time, I promise.

My tenses are all over the time. I’m surfing the crest of the everynow. I’m sorry, it can’t be helped, I’ve got to write it as it is. Events of a month now past still immediate. So now and so distant and so never ever always. And so very, very tired.

Earlier, my love phones my friend.

’Things aren’t too good. Could you spare us an hour or two to come over? We know it’s a Sunday night, and you’ve got an early start, so it’s fine if you can’t, but …’

And of course she comes, and she stays, and I groan and try to breathe with the pain, and in between we chat about other things, like the perfect appropriateness of the banana as food in times like this, the ingenuity of my love who built our bed at the precise height to catch the view of the gumtree and the grassy hills sliding off and rolling into the forest, and how our small town teenage grapevine works the news of her daughter’s boyfriend kissing another girl. All these threads sitting, different, but equally co-present with our pain, tears, sighs and empathy. Which is perfectly as it should be, and she stays and we cry, and we all know what’s happening.

Darkness falls, and my friend leaves, and we three, my love, our baby and I curl like onion-skins, trying to keep her with us, in our centre.

If you’re strong enough, stay with us; if you need to leave us, then let go. If you’re well enough, stay with us; if you have to leave us, then let go.

And so to the toilet again – is this the fifth or sixth time? – and my arms are wrapped around my love’s waist, and I feel the – what is the word for this? – evacuation – no, no, no, too mechanical, too impersonal – the elimination – no, too administrative, too reality-game-show – the expulsion – not punishment, no – the emptying. The internal sensation of parts of her possibility moving down through my cervix, my vagina. And the space of a desperate inhalation. Then the sound, the soft soft sound of those parts of her landing on the soft leaves soft grass soft sawdust. And I howl for the indignity of it all, the shame of putting her in the toilet on a cold autumn Sunday night. And my love, slowly, softly, still holding my head, ‘But it’s a composting toilet Cath, it will go onto the garden, back to the earth.

And, strangely, through my sobs and the hammering pain, I love my composting toilet.

Lost. Such a passive term. And as I think about its denial, erasure, its collateral damage, my anger rises. Because not only is our baby lost, but so is the visceral, emotional reality of that loss.

Lost. It points the finger at the one who was supposed to take the care. Raises questions about the quality of the vessel, the carriage in which it was so unsuccessfully kept. Was the gate a bit dodgy? Is that how the dog got out? Hole in the fence perhaps? Did you take your eye off her for a bit?

It is the most luscious colour I’ve ever seen. I’m not playing writer, not making this up for a weird dramatic effect. There was a very clear particular moment, a moment almost aside from what was actually happening to us, where that very thought interrupted, like a newsflash. I had just passed the first fleshy piece of what was going to be our baby. I picked up the torch, which hours before I’d suggested to my love might be a good idea to find. You’d better get our strongest torch ready. We might need more light out there later. The composting toilet is outside our house, bathed at night with the mood lighting of a cunningly recycled interior car light. Intuition told me we’d need more, and my caring, supportive, endlessly accommodating love instantly complied, checking and comparing all the vast range of torches we seem to possess, while, it seems on reflection, simultaneously peeling the aforementioned banana, filling a hot water bottle and preparing the oddly, but ohsorightly, desired mackerel on toast.

I’ve never been squeamish, except to see other creatures suffering. Always fascinated by anatomy books and museums, always curious about bodies. I needed to see what was supposed to be our baby. So I held on to my beloved and shone the torch into the toilet. There, nestling on the beige straw, was the most beautiful colour I had ever seen. I’m not exaggerating. I clearly, so clearly remember thinking what a rich, life-filled, life-giving, dense, good, lovely red it was. Combination of reds actually, threads swirling, glistening, alive. Bright and deep, shifting through crimson, fire-engine, burgundy. They shone. And I remember thinking life, strangely, not in a sad way at all. In a miraculous, almost awe-struck way, that my body could make such a beautiful substance, that pulsed a code to me, saying, growth, life, I could almost grow a baby. It was a moment of beauty and bizarre admiration – can I say it was a pleasure? – in the midst of the utter awfulness.

I did not lose my baby. My baby died. It was not caused by my uncaring irresponsibility or physical defect. My baby just died. And it hurt like hell and was messy messy messy human body soul real messy. Really normal really common – why isn’t this spoken of – maybe thirty per cent of pregnancies messy.

And I’m thinking of all the human collateral damage. I’m remembering Iraqi deaths on my television screen being dressed up as a CNN lime green video game. And I’m seeing my morning-after ultrasound, its grainy-grey screen, its radiographer typing away on the keyboard, all neat and white-jacketed and delivering the news. The destruction proved by a black hole in the image. There’s no sign of pregnancy.

And so I must write this, to fill the spaces between the words and give life form to the hole.

I’m trapped by a violent, inescapable barrage of industrial noise, unbearably loud inside my head. I don’t recall another dream like it, and I recall plenty of the whacky scary beautiful movies of my sleep. But none with the sound turned up as loud as this. All pure ugly noise. No image. Vision completely black.

It must have been around 6 am on Sunday morning. I’d gotten up at 2 am, as usual, for a wee. There was bright red blood on the toilet paper, not usual. I returned to bed and tried to relax myself back to sleep.

This isn’t uncommon, it all could be fine, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Just rest for the baby, try to rest for the baby.

My love was away for the night, camping out with others as security at the site of the next day’s community music festival. I could page him, but why wake him? It’ll be fine. Just relax and try to sleep. Nothing to be done now. He’ll be back later. Just rest. Sleep.

Between the positive self-talk, the wild windy shadows of the tree outside and hourly toilet visits – no blood! Oh thank you! – I must have dropped off around six. Which is when the trail bikes start. A tsunami of wailing trail bikes roars through my head, my body, but my sleeping dreaming self – I am dreaming myself inside my head inside my sleep – can’t open my eyes despite my battle to do so. I will not be allowed to wake from this dream yet. Eventually the sound dies down enough for me to hear a knock at our front door. Now I – in my dreams – can open my eyes, now I can get out of bed, get to the door and open it. Before me spreads a huge sea of small child creatures, so very close to human, hobbit elfin-like, dressed in riding gear, the mob stretching out beyond, far into the distant yard. They are only knee-high, but perfectly formed, and obviously most adept on trail bikes. The one who knocked speaks.

Excuse me, he says so quietly, so politely that I find it hard to equate with the shocking rudeness of their motor-roar, excuse me, he says holding a piece of straw, or a long match, or a flint, small fire-stick, I can’t quite identify it, in his hand but we need to light a fire. Can you please tell us the best place?

Well you just can’t I reply I’m sorry, but you can’t. All around us is dry dry forest. If you light a fire, the whole thing will go up.

The child shakes his head and stands firm, but with a look of profound apology I’m sorry, but we must.

We hold each other’s gaze. It is perfectly quiet. And then I wake.

I’m aching open-cut vulnerable.

I’m malleable, decisive and strong.

There’s no choice. I’ve given over to the process, riding it steady and solid, a part of, not separate from, its flow.

While it’s been two days and two nights with little sleep and lots of pain, my mind continues to remain astoundingly clear. A zombie who knows exactly what she wants and needs, while maintaining an excellent grasp of the bigger picture. Appointment times coordinated; ask my love to cancel meetings; return DVDs before the fine; brave the social glare of the day after. Head down, grip love, hat and sunglasses. Corner table for soup between the ultrasound and the doctor. Hide. And honestly, the best soup I’ve ever eaten. Thank you. Broth rejuvenates, small mouthfuls of profound effect.

I am forever interpreting the signs of language and questioning them for what they direct our attention away from, as much, if not more, than for what they are trying to direct it to. Why must our words hide the pain and the mess and death and sadness? Why is my actual lived experience rendered invisible and unheard? Lost and miscarriage: Are they subtly, but powerfully, reinforcing mother-blame and female incompetence with their suggestions of responsibility and agency? For me, now, not to ask these questions is a miscarriage of justice. But at the time I wrote my email, I was so inside the thing, that all I could do was struggle to find the name – I have no energy to make new words – we all knew for what had happened: we lost our baby.

Lost. It’s a tricky one, because the euphemism is so very nearly right. In English, we speak of all deaths as a loss, not only those of unborn children. And indeed they are – I am feeling the loss of this small person who was growing inside me, feeling her absence intensely – my bloated belly now suddenly void, my whole body drained of blood and the new weight of pregnancy. I am a drought-stricken river. Loss is the agony of the empty bed, the empty chair, the empty womb. And I believe it’s right that our culture respects and honours this experience. But there is a subtle chasm of difference between speaking of the loss I am feeling, and claiming that I lost my baby. Loss tragically happens to someone, but someone is irresponsible if they have lost something.

The smell is unforgettable.

Menstrual blood has a smell. I know that one well. Babies have a smell too; that soft soft oh you smell so good I could eat you up smell. But this is a new one. I imagine it lies somewhere in-between, this smell of what could have been our baby. With component parts of both, but arranged so differently, the smell of wrong.

Each time I return to the toilet – is this six or seven times now? – in the dark on that cold Sunday night, this new wrong smell slaps me. As if I need reminding of what is happening.

It is the incomplete smell of the unfinished. No aromatic notes pleasingly resolved. Pungent. Metallic. Searing itself into my sinuses. And with each new rolling wave of spasm, with each subtle internal sense of the shifting movement of another piece of our baby, that knock-out smell in our lovely toilet, as much as anything else that night, rips my balance from me and insists I sit, again and again, until the process is heartbreakingly complete.

I want my baby back – I’m exhausted, spent. Days of cramping and I want the pain to be over, crying. Close my eyes – I need to rest.

I hold my belly, as I’ve done for the past two months. Rub it gently. Days of cramping and I don’t want the pain to disappear. Because when it stops there is no arguing that she is gone. I don’t want it to be over. I don’t want her to be over.

Crying – I want my baby back.

Loss and Lost. I can think about this calmly, and wonder at the vast distance of meaning implied between the last s or the final t. Two letters beside themselves, as those who grieve often are. As I am, but not in the common use of the phrase. I have found myself, throughout these weeks, calmly beside myself, my observer self, my clear mind often present, holding my own body and heart through its tumult.

Between the s and the t lies the small space of this big event, where an abyss of lonely misunderstanding could crack open at any time, or, just as effortlessly, a compassionate soul could make a simple bridge.

This is a hard part to write. I’m nervous about putting the words down solidly, fearful of your judgement. Crazy. There’s no shame here, but I feel the shadow of a possible taboo. I think I’ve crossed a line – is it the toilet? Or the raw flesh to flesh? – but propelled by maternal love, some animal script buried in my DNA, I know I’ve committed no transgression.

Is it holding what was hidden inside me? Cradling in my hand what was unformed and unseen? Nurturing what I could not recognise?

I’ll tell you. I am writing it down. If hatred, greed and violence can be invited into millions of Australians’ living rooms daily, if people will pay to be entertained by cruelty, corruption and betrayal, then I should have no qualms about my bloody act of pure love.

Two days after the cold night – Ohhh. Now I think my baby’s come. I think, but do I really know? Do I know anything? Wasn’t there no sign on the grey-black screen? – I feel winded from below, a gulp of air sucked deep down all the way right through me. I look. I must look. I am still seeing, and will continue to – see the neat, discrete deep maroon sac-parcel strung with pale flesh pink. I reach down into the toilet, lifting it – baby? placenta? what, who is this? I believe it’s my baby – carefully from the bed of leaves and sawdust. I pick it up. I must. I must hold her – still holding her. I must see her closely from the palm of my hand – she is so warm – I turn her over – am turning her over, will always turn – gently, studying with curious wonder and surprise. A strange sense of shock and knowing, of holding the idea of her life and the reality of her death in my steady cupped hand.

I hope my love won’t find this too confronting, but I save the little baby sac in a dish, impulsively covered with the sweet little hanky printed with Australian birds I’d bought at the op shop a few days before. For him to look at too. I’m sorry if this is too much, but I had to. I didn’t know if you’d want to, and needed to give you the chance.

‘We can plant a tree over it’, he says, ‘I’m not saying it’s the baby, but as symbol, yeah.’

And I know instantly that the tree must be a passionfruit.

It’s only been eighteen days. Eighteen days. And I am ovulating again.

How can it be so soon?

How can my body be ready?

I marvel at its – my recovery, at its clarity and direction – all systems go. But I am not ready. I’m thankful and awestruck, and I will catch up, I know, but not yet. I am not quite ready, but very very grateful.

Grateful too for love and support. Grateful to the doctor who sent me home from the hospital that Sunday afternoon. Grateful for the lack of medical intervention, for being given the gift of this common – hard normal – painful – natural experience at its own pace, in the peace and comfort of our own home. Grateful for sadness.

Seven nights on from the Sunday with the smell, the cold and the truly beautiful red, I dream again.

I have arrived at the home of a woman I vaguely know, who was (in waking life) extremely pregnant last time we’d met, as she is in the dream. She and her rambling dream family live in a wonderful shambolic open collection of buildings deep in the bush. I too am very pregnant, and wearing a very ugly dress (blue with orange flowers, polyester, tent-style). Their home is a marvellous fantasy collection of stuff, randomly filed any whichways, the pickings of a lifetime’s clearing sales.

And I am trying to find my impish blonde and curls daughter. It is time to take her home for me, but time to start playing hide-and-seek with Mum for her. And we play joyously. Up and down stairs, in and out, under and behind. It’s time to go, and she runs off again. We play some more. It’s time to go and she laughs and scurries off again.

I find her, crouching, contained inside a giant woven mask. Of course, she is laughing. She is happy. It’s time to go and I hold out my hand for her. She calmly, beautifully smiles, meets my eyes and shakes her head. And at that moment I know that it’s time to go, but that I am the one who is now to leave. It is time for us to part; the departed and the torn apart. She must stay, and I turn, no tears, and descend the dodgy wooden staircase with no rails or wall for support. I make it to the ground in slow and steady steps. And then I wake.

Catherine Ryan

Catherine Ryan writes theatre, radio drama, short stories and dramaturges for stage and documentary film. She was the 2006 Theatrelab National Regional Playscript Award Winner, and is currently working on a drama for ABC Radio National.

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