She handed me a towel to wipe the goop from my abdomen. She had warmed up the goop, which had been kind of her. She was kind to me. She looked at me with sad eyes and said “Well, it looks like an empty womb. I’m so sorry honey.”
It had been twelve days since the last ultrasound, the one where they couldn’t find a heartbeat, and I had lost our second baby the day after that. For twelve days, I had pushed through. I went to work. I told people it would be ok, I’m fine, I’m fine. But when this nice ultrasound tech offered me sincere condolences, I just said “Thank you.”
Our older daughter was only 15 months at the time, but this pregnancy had not been a surprise or an accident; this baby was sought after and very much wanted. We had been about 10 weeks along, and had been so close to sharing our joyful news with family and friends. This was the younger sibling we had prayed for, longed for. And he was gone. Empty womb. Empty: just how my heart felt.
My emptiness was confirmed The aforementioned confirmation of my emptiness happened on December 20, 2017. All these pregnant images of Mary surrounding me made me feel like she was being pregnant AT me. Sure, Mama, I get it that you’re giving birth to the savior of the world. I understand that it’s because of Him that I may see my baby someday. But this feels so unfair.
Walking back to my car after that ultrasound, I was reminded of another time, about the same time of year, when I had felt longing to be full.
I was 18 years old. I was a freshman in college and had decided to stay home and attend community college. I had always longed for more attention from the boys, but just wasn’t much of an attention-getter; this fueled anxiety about my self-image, which likely made me stand out even less. In high school, I’d had a large, healthy group of girl friends to distract me from that kind of loneliness, but now it seemed everyone had gone off to 4 year university adventures, and as they filtered back in for Christmas break, things just weren’t the same. They were meeting up with new college friends, pining for new boyfriends, and of course spending time with their own families.
That was the year that my parish switched midnight mass from 10pm to actual midnight. That was the final straw for my parents, who decided our tradition of going to midnight mass together was not for them anymore. That was ok, my two brothers would still be with me. We got there early and sat in a pew together, and then one at a time they were picked off to be altar servers. I felt alone in a crowd of people. My throat swelled and I willed tears not to fall from my eyes. It was Christmas, I so badly wanted to not be alone, but I felt alone, empty.
The 100 year old Italian carved-wood nativity scene that the parish displays every year caught the corner of my eye. Maybe for the first time, I imagined taking an actual infant and laying him in the hay. Of having to give birth in some kind of barn. I wondered if the Holy Family had felt kind of outcast. It was like Jesus saying “I know, I’m sorry, me too.”
My throat was still closed up and those tears still threatened to fall, but I suddenly felt a sort of warmth through my core, the way you feel when someone gives you a tight hug. The loneliness didn’t go away, but strangely, I had company in my loneliness. It’s not that my sadness went away–it was just acknowledged in that moment, and my empty longing felt fuller, somehow.
As I left the ultrasound room, womb and heart empty, I reflected on how similar and still how different my two longings were–it is different to long for what was once yours but is now gone. My son was lost, and I felt like I might soon be, too.
Any sort of real moving forward took months, and Christmas that year felt pretty somber. But just like that nativity scene caught my eye years before, the memory of my previous longing helped me remember that I was not alone, that even on His birthday, Jesus was there to sit with me and make space for me and my sorrow, to join me in my emptiness and fill it with his presence.
And He was not just there with me in an emotional sense. He was there with me in my husband, who took my hands and made me promise not to blame myself. He was there with me throughin the form of my doctor OB, who called me after hearing that there was no heartbeat, and didn’t hang up the phone until she’d encouraged me to feel my feelings, to cry. He was there with me in my best friend, who checked in on me every day for a while. He was with me in the compassionate ultrasound technician, in my parents, in my siblings, who all rallied around me. He stayed with me, even though I was angry with Him, even though I only went through the motions of celebrating His birthday.
Even though I had been so angry with Him, even though I barely talked to Him on His birthday, he still reached out to me in 2018 and gave me what I begged Him for. The next advent, longing filled me once again. I remember going to a family Christmas party, wearing a green dress that accented my growing belly. I was filled with longing, but it was different this time–it was a longing that comes when a heartbeat fills a womb, the kind you feel when you let yourself hope again.
I felt so beautiful and full of love; and full of longing to meet my second daughter, this precious gift of God.
Megan Harper is a Clinical Social Worker at Oregon State Hospital. She and her husband Zach and their daughters Zoey and Hannah are parishioners at St. Philip in Dallas, Oregon. Megan is passionate about her faith, social justice, and the Oregon State Beavers!