I left the house Thursday morning, stuck in the headphones, pressed play: time for a run. I make the same route each morning. Turn west near the cop shop, pass the American flag near the bridge, and hit the river-trail by the park. I look out for the goose shit. Those little devils are tricksters.
This particular morning the sky was low and the mist met vapor as it rose from the water. I rounded a turn, and saw something crumpled and flopping beside the trail. I stopped: it was a green-headed mallard. I knew because I used to buy corn out of those dumb little vending machines and feed it to these things when I was a kid and didn’t know any better. I’m way too cool for that sort of thing now, way too tough and cynical.
I looked down at the animal. As far as I could tell this duck’s neck had been broken by some neighborhood kids, or some rival goose. It couldn’t raise its head. Feathers were scattered near its tail. I looked around, but didn’t see anybody; there were no park rangers to ask for advice. And for the mallard’s part, there were no duck-friends standing vigil, nobody or nothing was around to see this thing suffer. It was just alone by that path, waiting to die.
I realized suddenly that I was filled with complete, visceral compassion for this animal. I’m no vegetarian, not morally opposed to eating meat. I have a freezer stocked with frozen chicken. I didn’t know why I was standing there, yet something about it made me uncomfortable and simultaneously transfixed. Do ducks feel fear? I didn’t know. But this guy seemed to know he was going to die.
Why did I feel so moved? There are thousands of these stupid ducks, one hardly meant anything in some grand scheme. A duck. Humans die everyday. I watch tragedy on television, read about it in the news, and feel sympathy in some abstract, cerebral dimension. Yet looking at this creature, watching it suffer and flop and squawk, I felt a sadness so instantaneous and profound, strangely gratifying, like I’d been waiting for it on a level I hadn’t known or wanted to understand. I could not abandoned it, yet didn’t have the heart to find a rock and crush its head–to humanely snuff its misery.
I wondered if it had a mom, if it would be missed, fully aware these were childish things to consider. It had survived a long, grinding winter, probably flew here from some place sunny and idyllic, maybe Mexico. It seemed cruel and inappropriate that it had survived such an arduous pilgrimage, transcending chance and nature, only to die unnoticed.
The winter had been ironic and anticlimactic for me as well. Filled with lows, highs, and ambiguities too extreme for my vocab to color. I’d come out of a two-year purgatory in my professional life and was awarded a fellowship to study journalism in graduate school. Megan discovered she was pregnant and we decided we’d make it official. We were going to be husband and wife–change the facebook status–and join the traditions of story books. I’d have never imagined, never believed for a second, that something positive could come out of the past few years for me. Breathe, Mario: Things are going to be OK.
Megan and I had the coffee-talk of soon-to-be-parents: how much are diapers, anyways? How many vitamins are you supposed to take? Does this mean I have to clean the litter box from now on? We were scared to death and didn’t know the next right move, yet made all possible attempts to smile and brim with the requisite optimism. For me the baby was still an abstraction–something en route and life changing that became real only with the minute changes Megan’s body underwent. But it was Megan who seemed to feel this new reality every morning, every night after dinner, who experienced the process in the first-person.
I was working a menial kitchen-job then, humiliated daily by pulsating, crimson-faced coworkers and bosses who screamed for golden-brown walleye fast, faster, faster! But it was money. And if I knew one thing about parenthood, it was that it needed plenty of that.
While I was at work one morning, cutting vegetables or some other irrelevant task, I heard the kitchen phone ring. Then, “Mario, phone’s for you.” I already knew. Megan was scheduled for her three-month check up that morning, an appointment I couldn’t attend because of the kitchen. Megan was crying on the other end, and asked if I could come home.
She picked me up, and between sobs, told me what happened. It was a short story that consisted of two hard, indifferent facts. The doctor performed an ultrasound. There was no heartbeat.
It wouldn’t be fair to say I didn’t feel anything. But what I felt at that moment was mostly a desire to understand and an urge to comfort Megan: two tasks I was painfully aware were hopeless in that moment. “These things happen,” the doctor said, “no one really knows why.” I felt jilted and resentful. Why couldn’t they see this earlier? Why couldn’t they do anything to help Megan? Why does it work out for all those vapid, unfit mothers who take advantage of their situation for reality television? I know… That’s mean. I’m not elitist, but I was looking for someone to blame. Megan and I spent the rest of the day together watching mindless TV, trying to swallow the lumps in our throats along with our new realities, not saying much of anything.
If that had been the end of it, it might have been easier to pass off as some unpleasant, surreal dream. But you don’t really know about the more scientific, grisly aspects of miscarriage until you see it firsthand. Weeks later, there’d be an emergency D and C procedure–the details of which I’ll spare you–and several unending hours in a Catholic hospital. But I’ll say this: I could have used some of whatever drugs they gave Megan.
The night ended with the sterile coziness of a hospital recovery room and the detached warmth of a bedside nurse. When Megan began to surface from the comfort of the anesthesia, the nurse provided plenty of informative brochures and after-care instructions: “You may want to check in after a week if such and such occurs, you should wait a few months until you try again to conceive, your baby will be preserved until it’s buried in a mass grave after our September funeral service. Would you like updates through mail or email?”
That did it. I saw Megan’s face crumble. Why did she have to say that? I don’t care if it was a Catholic hospital, why was she imposing a religious afterlife conception on a woman who may not prefer to think of a biological accident in terms of a lost soul that needs to be blessed and sent off in some outmoded formality?
The weeks passed, and life slowly began to find its former rhythm. As small as it sounds, the most grueling part may have been explaining the situation to curious family members and friends at a time when all efforts to talk about it, make sense out of it, seemed daunting and premature. Consolations usually took the form of “maybe it was for the best,” or “everything happens for a reason.” I’ve come to realize that those well-intentioned comments are often all people can offer when confronted with the apparent randomness of the world, and these statements are equally hollow-sounding and impossible to argue. Sometimes truth consists of only what we can’t prove wrong.
We lost the baby in March. It’s now the end of June. Being at a loss for words isn’t something I’m used to. But it’s taken this long to gain enough open perspective to write about it. Maybe I felt I didn’t deserve the grief. It was Megan, after all, that shouldered the immediate weight of the news. And maybe I felt a little guilty. As much confidence as I had that I could rise the responsibility of fatherhood, maybe a piece of me was relieved to know that it wasn’t yet my time to prove it. Whatever the case, I’ve learned that the most difficult emotions to describe are often the ones that offer the most insight.
If you think the duck story was some clever parallel narrative, it wasn’t. The duck was just a duck. I learned from a park worker that it had been scooped up at taken to the humane society where it was destroyed. An interesting choice of words, but I felt grateful to know it didn’t suffer long and that I had a chance to see it that day. That duck unlocked a part of me that may have sat stilted and unexamined until it withered and grew stagnant.
Life is a process that can’t be summarized with any charming platitude. But it is a fragile little thing, and random or not, I feel a tiny bit luckier today that I have a chance to watch it all unravel.