Like all expectant parents we looked forward to ultrasounds. "Is it a boy or a girl?" "I can’t wait to hear our little identical twins’ heartbeats again!" And then the shock. No heartbeat. I stared at the monitor wondering what was wrong with the equipment. The technician said, "I’m sorry."
I didn’t understand what she was sorry about. Then the horror of the situation hit us. What was just a few days ago the most amazing miracle of nature, identical twins with beating hearts and moving limbs, were now two dead bodies lying at the bottom of the uterus, their gestational sac detached from the uterine wall.
My wife started crying, wailing like I had never heard before, "No, this can’t be happening. No, no." For 45 minutes she screamed in that office as I remained apparently stoic, the male role, pretending I was calmly accepting the tragedy. In reality, I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do, what to say to my wife. All the dreams I had for my twins were instantly shattered.
Images flew through my head. I thought of my wife’s favorite movie, "Steel Magnolias," and her least and most favorite scene, when Sally Field was at the cemetery in tears, sobbing over the death of her daughter, a death she could not accept. Even writing these words brings back my tears. And it’s been more than a year.
Miscarriage. The word itself doesn’t seem strong enough to express the gravity of the tragedy. To miscarry sounds trivial, like I fumbled something, not like my child died. The dictionary definition is coldly clinical: "the involuntary discharge of the fetus." The second definition describes exactly how we felt, "the mishandling or failure of something."
After the twins died it was surprising how hard it was to do what we felt was normal: to have a funeral. There was a lot of bureaucratic wrangling with officials saying, "You want to do what with the fetal material?" I blinked in disbelief as they called our twins’ bodies "fetal material." We did finally manage to have our little ones cremated and even had a funeral of sorts.
Once people understood how we felt about this, there was a lot of help and compassion. No one was trying to be uncaring when they said things like "you can try again, don’t worry." Or, "there was probably something wrong with them and it’s better they didn’t come full term." I understood everyone loved us and were just trying to find the right words.
The people in the pathology lab were unsung heroes, cutting through a lot of red tape, making it possible after extensive DNA testing to save these tiny bodies, have them cremated and sent to a funeral home.
Our loss made us realize, again, the fragility of life and how powerless in the end we are to control it. A sweet woman, more spiritual than we are, sent us a small figurine holding the word "Hope." We bought a matching figure and like a monument, they both adorn our china cabinet with a miniscule urn of ashes between them.
A friend of mine, realizing that we had used donor sperm, tried to console me by saying, "Steve, they weren’t really your children." I understand that he was trying to help. But yes, they were my babies. And every baby we lost, seven in all, felt like our babies.
It wasn’t just my wife’s miscarriage. It was our miscarriage. It wasn’t the discharge of a fetus. It was the loss of the potential of a life that might have gone on to cure cancer or finally bring peace to our world.
I’m a cancer survivor and realize I’m lucky to be alive to face the possibility of miscarriage. My cancer is what brought me to this place. It created the impossibility of having children biologically again. Many tries later, after many thousands of shots that my wife endured, through countless IVF procedures and thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, we’re pregnant again. And if we’re lucky, when you read this, 21 weeks pregnant.
For all of you men and women, who are trying desperately to be parents for the first time or once again, keep trying, whether naturally, by assisted reproductive technologies or adoption because the miracle of life, babies and parenting is more than worth it.
Steve Sulkin of Vernon Hills is an officer of ChildKorp Inc., where his wife, Lia, is president. A brass plaque dedicates their Gymboree Play & Music at Westfield Hawthorn Mall to their lost twins, "… to all the children of the world who will in memory of our twins, run, jump, play and grow their young minds."