The thing about loss is that it's not a dark, brooding presence. Not like in the movies. Not in reality.
Society doesn't let people grieve adequately for pets and grandparents. If you lose a parent, or a spouse, or God forbid, a child, you can grieve. If you lose your faithful feline companion of 16 years, well, you better be at work in the morning. If you lose a grandparent, well, in that lost moment at work when the mist swells up and your chest is tight, well, you better keep that to yourself.
Ironically, the call came on Valentine's Day, 2007. I was in Portland, Oregon, far from my home base on Capitol Hill, in DC. At that time, I was always slightly relieved to be out of town, and away from the threats of dirty bombs and other random acts of terror. The call was my wife, who actually told me to sit down. She is not easily spooked, so that was worrisome.
She was also newly pregnant, and just returned from her first sonogram. I walked out of my meeting into an empty office and she said that while the doctor was performing the procedure he'd paused and seemed startled and asked "Well, isn't that interesting?" And then he smiled at her, and said with a laugh, "Bet you don't like to hear your doctor say that."
The rule of thumb is that you don't tell anyone you are pregnant until about 12 weeks in. From a layman's perspective, the likelihood of miscarriage seems to peak around week nine and then declines. By week 12, you are mainly free and can be relatively confident telling people about a pregnancy you expect to go to term. I, of course, raced out of that empty office and immediately told my closest friends.
As best we could figure, there are less than 100 live births of identical triplets each year in America.
Identical triplets aren't just unusual, they are a miracle, and it's irresponsible to keep miracles to yourself, even at week seven.
Bruce Springsteen is my wife's muse (for the record, she is mine). Before the Portland call, before anything else, we convinced her dad to take our young son for a long weekend, so we could fly to Montreal to be alone. And even though she was now pregnant with triplets and we were definitively not alone, we went. Bruce and the E Street band were touring in support of their new album, Magic.
Now, Bruce is not a passing fancy of my wife's. As a teen, she worked for years at the 7-Eleven off Highway 252 in Delaware County to afford tickets to see Bruce. She took piano lessons to learn to play Jungleland. She lost her mother early, and the big fight she regrets (and as with all loss, there are regrets) is the fight she had when Bruce played six straight nights at the Spectrum. After the fifth night, her mom cut her off. There would be no sixth night. There would be a big fight, and later, a death bed apology.
Our first big date was driving to the Meadowlands in 1999 to see Bruce and the E Street band, together after more than a decade. To Bruce fans, it's known as the Reunion Tour.
We stayed that night by the World Trade Center, because rooms at that end of the island were cheap on weekends in those days and we were going to another concert the next night on the north Jersey shore. John F. Kennedy, Jr. had died a few days before, and first thing in the morning, we walked between the twin towers to his loft where complete strangers had gathered to leave flowers and grieve. That ritual has become routine, but at the time, it was unique and seemed strange to me.
The thing about miracles is that they demand sunlight. So, at 12 weeks, we let the world in our miracle.
And we gave the babies names.
My daughter is a miracle in her own right. She is precocious and vibrant. She reads fluently at 4. She swims like a fish. Her teachers boast about her leadership. She gives hugs that make the sun rise. She is funny, and charming, and demanding, and stubborn, and beautiful.
And if everything had gone according to plan, she wouldn't be here.
There is no anniversary I am marking with this essay. We lost the triplets in May. They were due in early October. That August seven years ago is a mystery to me.
Every May, right around Mother's Day, we buy three huge sunflowers and take them to the nearest river. We say their names, say a few words and let them go. The flowers drift away, sometimes together, sometimes one lingers behind.
The thing about identical triplets is that they are all in it together.
Unlike fraternal triplets, who each get their own amniotic pouch, identical multiples share the cocoon. I suspect it's comforting during the journey, but it's also dangerous. If anything should happen to one, well, it's all for one and one for all.
We went to Florida. My wife's dad has a house on the southwest coast, and we go there as often as we can. In this case, in May of 2007, the trip was relatively urgent. When we got to 24 weeks, my wife would need to be within an hour of a Level III trauma care center, should, God forbid, anything go wrong. At 24 weeks, the babies would be viable. That May, we were approaching 20 weeks, after almost six months of pregnancy. There are few Level III trauma centers outside big cities, so this was to be our last trip before the triplets came. We'd need to stay close to home from then on.
On a Tuesday, we met friends to go out on their speed boat. My 3-year-old son loved it, even if any actual speed made him nervous. So instead of powering through the waves, we mainly mildly drifted. It was peaceful.
When we docked, my wife bent over to tie his shoes, and felt something wrong. We had reached the end of this journey, and she knew it immediately. We hurried for a hospital, found no Level III care, but did find a Catholic hospital with a maternity unit, a few miles away. In the emergency room, we waited, listening while the unaccompanied young woman in the next bay was told that her to-term baby would be stillborn. We were next.
With some pleading, we were allowed to go to the maternity wing, even though we were not quite 20 weeks, and the outcome was already determined. Through the night, the babies were delivered, and my wife held them, while I couldn't.
As promised, my girls were all together in their cocoon, only one was too fragile and they were all in it together.
Early in the morning, when they were gone, a priest came to the room. Thinking we had delivered our miracle, he was overjoyed. My wife was furious. No one should ever be congratulated for a miscarriage. Or three.
I ushered the priest into the hall. I apologized, thinking there was enough loss for that day, and I did not want to experience any more of God's wrath, not by insulting a priest. I explained that we had lost the babies, and apologized again.
He looked at me and was ready to speak. I remember thinking, there is absolutely nothing he can say to me to make me feel better, and was astonished that he would have the gall to try. He took both my hands in his, and he squeezed them hard, looked furiously into my eyes, and said, "God loves you."
The thing about loss is that it sneaks up on you.
In the car, I tend to listen to sports talk radio. I love Philly sports talk radio. I love how parochial it is. I love how passionate the fans are. When I first moved to Philly, Donovan McNabb was making the opposite journey, to DC from Philly.
But five years of sports talk can get old, especially when all the local teams are struggling. So, one day recently, I started rummaging through the CDs in my tired old car.
And there was Magic.
After the delivery, as I drove my son back and forth to the hospital to see his mom, we listened to Magic in our rental. He loved "Radio Nowhere," and we listened to it over and over. But sometimes, he'd stay with his grandfather, and as I drove, I'd listen to a different song, one that was about infidelity, but struck me as having a completely different meaning, one about fidelity. My dear friend Jeff is in the music business, and he says that no song is 100 percent what you want it to be, music is totally personal, and songs mean whatever you want them to mean. And this song was about the loss, the journey, my wife and I were on.
Well tears they fill the rosary,
at your feet my temple of bones
Here in this perdition we go on and on
Now our city of peace has crumbled and our book of faith's been tossed
And I'm just down here searching for my own piece of the cross
And our loss echoed and echoed.
The thing about miscarriages is that an astonishing number of people have survived one.
My friend Jeff and his wife had at least one, I don't know. When I mentioned ours, early in our friendship, she was at the sink washing dishes, and gulped for air, and walked away. His eyes flashed, and I changed the subject to Donovan McNabb.
A few weeks after our loss, we were at a going away party for a colleague. I was still relatively junior then, and had not met many of the senior staff. I work with some of the most accomplished people in the world. But one by one, these incredibly accomplished would-have-been-dads came to me, to tell me their story, to tell me of their loss, to put their arm around me, to tell me how sad they were that we lost our miracle. Not one of them, not one, told me it would be OK.
When I was in college, I knew everything. I could wax about politics, and moral philosophy, and theology. I could tell you why God was dead, and why the whole art of baby-making was foolish, and self-involved. I had a lot of answers.
The thing about Amalia Sarah and Elenie Elizabeth and Georgia Marie Roman is that I hope there is a God and he loves you too.