When the therapist said, "I think you're still grieving the three babies you lost, don't you?" tears salted my eyes, an unexpected assault.
"Babies," I echoed the triggering word. The room filled with a thundercloud of conflicting emotion. "I don't use the word babies. I call them miscarriages."
"Maybe it's time to call them babies?"
It was true: I had never fully grieved the miscarriages I'd had four years earlier. After my son B finally arrived, I'd packed those losses in a box marked "then." Then as in "not now," as in "over and done." But now, nine months after the birth of K, the second of the two children my wife Tracie and I had dreamed we'd have, some rusty lock on my psyche had fallen open, and those specters came hissing out.
How do you grieve someone who was more wish than flesh? Who left no memories to fill the void?
"Maybe it's time," the therapist said.
* * *
Days later, sitting in meditation, I closed my eyes and invited grief to appear. Now that I'm safely ensconced in parenthood, I can do this. Now that I know what I'm grieving -- not the loss of biological motherhood, but the loss of three babies, I can do this. There, I said it: Babies.
I breathed in. I saw a meadow full of ragweed and green foxtails.
I breathed out.
Will grief enter as a mountain lion, all creep, shadow, and snarl? Will grief enter as a black-tailed deer, timidly nibbling the undergrowth?
I breathed in.
I breathed out.
From the center of the field, something white and winged flickered up out of the grasses, flew like a lazy spring butterfly across the blue sky and landed on my left leg. It pressed an image into my flesh then dissolved.
What I saw there: three sand dollars sketched on my skin.
"Really?" I asked.
"Yes," grief confirmed, "really."
I called the tattoo studio.
* * *
A week before my appointment at Sacred Rose Tattoo, I walked the beach of my childhood, looking for whole sand dollars. I wanted to bring them to the tattoo studio, to present my artist, Amy, with examples of the real thing.
I wanted her to feel their grit between her fingertips, to trace the gray veins that creep up their sides like fissures in concrete, to break one open and release the three, tiny, porcelain-like doves that rattle around inside.
I know this length of beach like no other. I know where the waves cross over each other, creating pockets in the sand that catch sand dollars, a cache revealed at low tide.
For the first time in my life, I couldn't find a single whole sand dollar. I carried home a small bowl filled with bone-white fragments.
* * *
The electric buzz of Amy's tattoo gun and the burn of ink needled between my epidermal layers sent endorphins pulsing through me. Lying on her table, I floated in and out of the room, memory looping its filmstrip in my brain, replaying a dream I'd had once, on the morning of my grandmother's funeral: Grandma and me, standing in shallow surf at high noon, sunlight glancing off the ocean so brightly I could barely see. Reaching blindly into the foam, white waves, again and again, I grabbed up fistfuls of broken sand dollars, wanting the whole ones I couldn't see. "Keep trying," she said, "They're in there. Just keep trying."
As Amy worked, etching the hair-fine, single-needle lines into my skin, I learn what the sand dollars were really about: hope and faith, trying and believing.
* * *
Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, "In continuous practice, under a succession of agreeable and disagreeable situations, you will realize the marrow of Zen and acquire its true strength." As I drove home from my tattoo appointment, endorphins still tingling in me, I thought about this. Is that why those babies were here? To strengthen me?
Back when I was still making and losing babies, I had said to Tracie, "If someone told me I'd have ten miscarriages, and then I'd have a healthy baby, I'd have no problem with that." I imagined myself crossing each pregnancy off on a list, counting down to the guaranteed successful one. "It's the not-knowing that kills me." Now I could see that not-knowing was my teacher, preparing me for the myriad uncertainties of parenting.
* * *
Weeks later, we were on the coast, my family of four, walking along the packed wet sand just beyond the tide's reach, baby K sleeping in the carrier strapped to Tracie's chest, lulled to sleep by the ocean's rushes, toddler B trudging along between Tracie and me.
Looking out at the lazy autumn waves, I thought about what that therapist had said: "Maybe it's time." Finally, I understood it: how that unacknowledged grief had ruled me from the shadows until I had welcomed it into the room.
My experience of parenthood had begun with loss. Loss on repeat. Loss times three. That loss had left its mark on me: I was still, on some deep level, fearful of losing my babies. Each time they approached a new milestone -- B going to preschool, K sleeping in his crib instead of our bed -- panic bells rang in me. Grief wanted to tighten her grip on my kids: I worked so hard to get them here, how could I even consider letting them go? But the impulse to hold on -- it wasn't helping anyone.
I don't know if the mark of the miscarriages will ever fade entirely. I do know that my children, just like the babies I lost before them, will continue to remind me that the present moment is fleeting, that the future is uncertain, that we are all, at every moment, vulnerable. And I know I have a choice -- I can let these facts grip me with fear, or I can let them fill me with deep gratitude for all that is happening right here, right now.
Some excerpts of this article appeared under the same title in Hip Mama.