The Walrus and the Carpenter

Were walking close at hand;

They wept like anything to see

Such quantities of sand:

If this were only cleared away,’

They said, it would be grand!’

There really is such a thing as getting off on the wrong foot, and it is humbling. This is what I mean:

Go to the doctor, full of pride and smug glee, believing you are about seven weeks pregnant. Lie on the ultrasound table, holding hands with your beloved. You have already told your closest friends. Now you are going to get your pictures, those indistinct lines which you are not even sure how to read, but you don’t care… You are going to get to shout it from the rooftops. You are going to eat and get fat and be happy…

 But then, the tech frowns.

 “Are you sure you’re seven weeks?”

 “Yes!” you say, because you are. You are regular as rain in April. Your boobs have been killing you. You’ve been bone tired. Your sense of smell is out of control and you are very mean for no reason.

“Hmmmm.” She says. There are no pictures. Well, what do you know? Maybe there aren’t any pictures so early? Maybe that comes later. I mean, there’s nothing to see, right?

Then, you get dressed and wait to see the doctor. While you do that, you and your husband engage in a mathematical discussion where you now feel like a total ass. Could you possibly be 5 weeks? Well, if by 5 week, “they” mean 5 weeks from ovulation, then yeah! You could be! But you know that’s not how “they” count. Or maybe they do?

 You are ushered into the small doctor’s office. But you aren’t weighed or told to get undressed. You sit. Rob sits. The doctor comes in and says it like this:

 “Hi Michelle… It looks like this is not a viable pregnancy.”

 Huh? What does that mean? What does that mean?

 There is a long, stupid pause. And then, she, the doctor, explains exactly what that means. What you thought there was, was never anything at all. There were cells and hormones and something you laughed about and dreamed and sent away to college, about but that’s it. It was never real.

There’s only one way to react. And that’s to cry your ever-loving eyes out. You keep returning to this: What does it mean? “Not viable”? Is this possible? Everyone you know has gotten pregnant and had a baby, like, (I snap my fingers) that.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech.

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each.’

 Rob and I head out, past all the waiting bellies and pictures of babies, out into the oppressive, surreal early summer hot spell. The colors of the buildings in SoHo are saturated with heat, and burn brighter than bright. He is holding me up. In the cab, we self-flagellate. What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong? What did he do wrong? What did we do wrong?

 Nothing, of course. But it’s impossible to feel that way. Everyone, and I mean everyone, does it easily, but you. Or, I should say me. After all, everyone in the whole world was born. Everyone has a mother.

 I cry all that day, and the next, and the next after that. I repeat the same phrase over and over again.

 “It’s so sad. It’s just so sad.” And I mean this like I’ve never meant anything, from the very bottom of myself. It’s funny that something so common is so very isolating. No one can understand, except all the people that do, and we all keep it to ourselves.

 A week later, after it’s mostly over, (well, the physical part, not the emotional part, which stays with me,) we venture out to dinner. It’s the most glorious time of June and for someone like me, with a large capacity to joyousness, it’s impossible to stay totally dark, even if I want to be a bat, even if my heart is broken in about ten thousand pieces.

 The great thing about having this capacity for joy is that even at my worst most depressed moments, I smell hyacinth, or wonder at a hawk. It’s my favorite part of me, because it’s seen me through over and over again; through heartbreak, through loss, through being 13. I dread and pray and hope that nothing ruins this for me, because the flip side of this joy is my vast imagination, which cannot just imagine the worst, but can conjure horrors so terrible that I can make myself tremble in fear, as if they were a tactile reality. 

 Broken by something that never was, I vacillate between yearning to enjoy the season- I love seasons! I love weather! I love soft smelling flowering trees lining Bleecker Street!- and a deeply blue sorrow that fills all the places where excitement was just a few weeks before.

The eldest Oyster looked at him,

But never a word he said:

The eldest Oyster winked his eye,

And shook his heavy head —

Meaning to say he did not choose

To leave the oyster-bed.

We go to our favorite fish restaurant. As we are seated in the tightly cramped quarters at the bar, it occurs to me….

 …This may sound crazy… honestly, I am so confused and turned around by what has happened, that I’m not sure when I stopped being pregnant or not, but on that sweet summer night, I realize I definitely am not. I can have a glass of wine. I can have two. And I can have more than wine, better than wine even; I can eat my weight in oysters. And there is consolation in that. The joy, lit by the weather, catches fire, and burns a tiny bit, like a match on a damp dark moonless night. 

But four young Oysters hurried up,

All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,

Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,

They hadn’t any feet.

Oysters are a perfect food, a world in a seashell, transporting you in a bite to where ever they hail from.  I love them all a lot

I love briny Watch Hills from Rhode Island that taste like an Atlantic breeze. I love rich Beau Soleils piney and soft from New Brunswick. I love salty local Widow’s Holes, fat Wiley Points, classic Wellfleets, pretty Moon Stones, bright Blackberry points… I prefer my local East Coast ones, though I bet if I were sitting up in Yakima or Eugene or Crescent City, I’d like West Coasts just as well.

Rob and I, we don’t stand on ceremony. We’re old New Yorkers that way, recalling our ancestors who ate them out of a barrel on the Bowery for a penny apiece. We eat them on a random Tuesday, if we feel so inclined. We eat them at Christmas and on July 4th. Sometimes, we’ll have a party and stuff our friends with them. (We are lucky to have a very close and great source: my sister, who works for one of the nicest suppliers in NYC.)

Once, with no idea of where were going, only that we needed to be close to San Francisco, Rob rented a cabin overlooking Tomales Bay in Marin County for a few nights. When we got to our place we found the kitchen stocked with fresh bread, and local cheese, and milk with cream floating on top from the neighbors up the hill. I had a cold, so Rob offered to go and forage. He came home with a mesh bag full of Tomales Bay oysters from the Marshall Store and a bottle of local white. We sat on deck chairs watching the sun sink over the bay, crunching the bread, tossing the oysters back, and sipping that soft white. I was cured by morning. No matter the when, oysters are themselves the celebration. After all, you eat them alive.

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,

And scrambling to the shore.

Back to the fish restaurant: I look at Rob, who nods encouragingly at me, and I sip the wine, which is so light and tastes tartly of salty Greek air and lemons. It’s ideal.  We squeeze lemon on the oysters, which are fat and glistening in their lovely cream shells. Down the first one goes. Don’t ask if I chew or just swallow, I never spend the time to notice. That first one brings tears to my eyes it tastes so good…

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock

Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood

And waited in a row.

Right. I will get over this. Not being pregnant isn’t so bad, right? In fact, at this breezy moment in June, it’s better not to be, or so I tell myself. What better thing could there be than oysters and wine and the two of us, and a soft breeze blowing in the open windows from Charles Street? As everyone kept telling me, (and which was pretty cold comfort,) at least I’d gotten pregnant quickly and knew I could get pregnant. I’d be pregnant again soon enough…

 …a year and some months later. Which when you are on the wrong side of 35 seems like forever. A forever filled with hope and disappointment in two week cycles, on and on and on…

 But! This time things looked better. At six weeks there is a heartbeat. A tiny, loud heartbeat!

 “It’s perfect!” said the tech. Yes! We even got pictures! She even smiled!

At eight weeks, there was again a heartbeat! But there was also worry in the tech’s eyes. She wasn’t enthusiastic when we asked if we could record the heartbeat on our phone. She looked down when she thrust the pictures at us. Something about measuring small. Something about a gestational sac.

Knee-jerk, in the hallway waiting area, I started to cry. Rob went very pale, the way he does, his lips turning white. We were led back into the doctor’s office.  The doctor was surprised to find us so.

 “Why are you crying?” She asked genuinely, gently. “What’s wrong?” I might have been a kitten or a small child.

 “I’m measuring small. That can’t be good news.” I wept.

 She sat down, matter of fact. “Look, we all grow at different rates. I’m tall. You’re not tall. We’ll just keep an eye on it. Come back in two weeks.” She was reassuring.

Rob wiped my tears away, and I nodded. We’d nothing to worry about. We relaxed. It’s true. I’m small. She was tall. We do all grow differently. There is no mention of anything involving a gestational sac.

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,

To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

And whether pigs have wings.’

On Halloween, there is a spot of blood. Just a spot. Lots of people spot. Lots of women who are nearly 10 weeks spot. It’s common. When I call the doctor’s office, the doctor that calls me back, not my usual doctor, sighs and asks me if I’m sure it’s not something else too gross for me to say here and which yes, as a reasonably intelligent adult I am sure it’s not, and then tells me I can come in for an ultrasound the next day “if you want…” Like it’s a chore. Like I’m a hysteric.

When I get home, the spot is multiplied, so I heed some good advice, and go to the hospital. Maybe it is nothing. But I know it’s not nothing. Call it a mother’s intuition. Before we leave to go, I say to Rob, “This is going to be a very bad night.”

Perhaps I’ve misjudged myself, underestimated my terrible imagination. Maybe there is a place that’s too gruesome to imagine. And that place is the emergency room at NYU-Langone Hospital on Halloween night, when I am the patient.

Wretched, I am wheeled across giant floors on a gurney, like a real sick person, wrapped in a filthy sheet, sticky. Am I a sick person? At first the orderlies and nurses joke with us, and then the ER doctor examines me and realizes what we already know. Rob and I cling to each other for dear life. In the bed next to us is a very old person, wheezing, whose family flurries and flits around him, like helpful sparrows, chatting in Spanish.

Over and over, I keen: “It’s so sad. It’s just so sad.” And Rob sits with pale lips. Watching from the other side. Seeing the things I can’t see. “It’s so sad.”

And it is. It’s so sad. So much sadder than we could have imagined. So much worse then even the last time. We did things right that we thought we had done wrong. Superstitiously, this time we hadn’t told anyone, except my family and two or three other people. We took vitamins. We ate kale. I went to the gym. Twice a week! That’s major for a potato like me! And yet… here we are. What else can I say except: it’s so sad. It’s just so sad. We are so sad.

We are shocked. But we are not totally unprepared. The lingering hurt of our first sour experience has made us fit to handle this new bitterness. When we are finally released, the nurse says to me “See? That wasn’t so bad.” And I say to her: “No, you’re right. I just lost my baby. It wasn’t so bad.” It’s satisfying to see the smile slink off her face. Not violent by nature, I’m tempted to punch her anyway. Because even though this is just so sad, I’m not just sad; I’m very, very angry.

 At midnight in a taxi, on the way home, skittering past people dressed as monsters and goblins, as zombies and pregnant nuns, drunk with painkillers, I tell Rob “at least I get to eat oysters and drink wine.” Triumphantly, I say this!

 “Yes.” Said Rob. “You can. We are going to get you as many oysters as you want.” His arm is around me. See? I have learned something. This time I know I can have them tomorrow if I want.

But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,

Before we have our chat;

For some of us are out of breath,

And all of us are fat!’

No hurry!’ said the Carpenter.

They thanked him much for that.

My birthday is a few days later. Happy birthday! Ha! All I can do is try to absorb the love our family and closest friends and colleagues have shown us, but it’s not enough. I objectify my pain, clutching it like a safety blanket. What else is there to do?

We return to the same fish place. Rob will ply me as promised. We clink glasses, and we slurp a selection from New Brunswick and Rhode Island and Massachussetts. Two dozen, I believe.

A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,

Is what we chiefly need:

Pepper and vinegar besides

Are very good indeed —

Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,

We can begin to feed.’

The week after that we go to London, amazing, wonderful, curative London, chilly and fall bright. For Rob’s birthday, I take him to the nicest fish restaurant there. We eat more oysters, big fat salty wild ones from the North Sea. I have a glass of champagne! And potted shrimp. It all goes down so very easily.

 No baby? No problem. I can eat oysters. Lots of them.

But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,

Turning a little blue.

After such kindness, that would be

A dismal thing to do!’

The night is fine,’ the Walrus said.

Do you admire the view?

Oysters don’t relieve my sorrow. That stays with me for good. It shrinks, yes it does, but those two experiences, one that never was, one that was and wasn’t, are etched in indelible, permanent market on my heart, next to the names of those who lived and died that I’ve loved. Theresa, John, Amy, Adrienne, Michal…and more.

November is dark. So very dark. And so is December. But there are oysters still.

I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:

I deeply sympathize.’

With sobs and tears he sorted out

Those of the largest size,

Holding his pocket-handkerchief

Before his streaming eyes.

But is there another side to these experiences? These two meaningless experience, unrelated, unresolved, unfinished… I turn this question over for months. And I do find an answer… or part of one…

I choose to believe that with these sorrows, my capacity for joy is increased, perhaps by as much as magnitudes and by orders of magnitudes. The hyacinths smell sweeter, and the peonies are brighter. I scoop them up at every deli and farm stand and am laden with them. The mergansers are in the lake, bobbing along, with sharp beaks and their silly fringes, and the Cooper’s hawk says “kik-kik-kik” when we walk too close to its nest. Asparagus has returned to the market, and oh! How I love to roast it! The cat snuggles between us, purring, at night, her head under my chin. She’ll be sixteen this July, and she’s fit as a kitten! And Rob and I wake up every morning together, and are happy to be together, more, we are overjoyed to be together. And now, every picture we get to take home, every morning that I wake up rounder, even every single time I puke, including the time we went snorkeling and I threw up five times in the water near all the other tourists, I am happier than I can possibly imagine. We are happier. Who needs food? I can thrive on this pure joy. It’s not just mental, it’s physical.

I also got a new doctor.

As for the oysters, I am grateful to them. They didn’t tell me- and I mean this as no offense to those who were so kind to me- that it would all work out someday. They didn’t advise me to get acupuncture or do yoga. They just tasted really fucking good, and I couldn’t eat them if I was pregnant, so I would eat as many as I could when I wasn’t, and if I was lucky, and I am lucky, the joy would be there too, and it was and it is.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.“

Last November, in the deep darkness, I didn’t know what I know now. Next November, I’ll feast again. There will be piles of Moon Stones and platters of Watch Hills. I’ll eat Widows Holes and Beau Soleils by the dozen, with a loaf of bread and pepper and vinegar besides. In the meantime, I don’t miss the oysters at all.

(The poem is “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by the one and only Lewis Carroll.)