Nonfiction by Kim Heikkila
White Sand Rising
Thursday, December 4, 2003
Nick saunters in, grabs a donut, sits down in a desk in the front row. He chats with classmates he can hardly know, flashing his winning smile and laughing along with them. The mood is light on this last day of the semester.
He is tall and good-looking. He is, as usual, nicely dressed. He is articulate and personable and smart.
He is enjoying himself.
I see him there in the front row, donut crumbs on his desk, and something snaps. The blood in my veins goes from coldly controlled to boiling with rage in a split second.
I walk over to his desk, rap on it with my knuckles, say icily, “Can I see you outside for a minute?” I don’t wait for an answer as I turn and head out the door.
He follows me into the hallway, brushing the crumbs from his pants.
I yell. I let him have it. I let loose all my fury at his impudence, his gall at showing up on the last day of class after having missed at least three-quarters of the rest of them, his disrespect of me and the midterm agreement we had brokered, his nerve for eating a donut as if he was entitled to it just like everyone else. I tell him it’s too late, he cannot take the final exam, he has failed the class.
He yells back. He explains that he missed the bus, he lost his job, his girlfriend dumped him, his friends have abandoned him. His heart is broken and his mind frazzled. He cries. He bargains. He tells me I am consigning him to a life of crime and drugs by failing him and sending him back to his dysfunctional family in Florida. He blames me, the school, the bus driver, his friends. He pleads for mercy.
I countenance none of it. I keep yelling. I am aware that the rest of my students can likely hear us, even through the closed door. I realize that I have lost all sense of composure and decorum. I understand that I have broken every code of good teacher conduct. I have never done this before. And though I know I shouldn’t shout, I can’t stop myself. It feels good. It is liberating to let go the constraints of polite society. I let it rip with abandon, stopping myself, just barely, at the brink of unleashing a string of profanity at this brazen, irresponsible student.
I tell him, You’re done. I say, You have failed. The rest of it is not my concern. Go now. You are done.
He stomps off.
I take a breath, try to regain some sense of control before going back into my classroom and shepherding the rest of my students through our final day together. I have ninety minutes to manage with some semblance of sanity. I reel the rage back in, corral the anger before it carries me off with it. I have to get through this class.
Monday, December 1, 2003
Steve and I take the elevator to the ob/gyn clinic on the 6th floor and walk into a waiting room full of pregnant women. They sit alone or with kids or with partners, perusing old copies of Pregnancy and Parenting magazines. We are part of this club, too, and today is the day we will announce it to our friends and family. We’re going to have a baby. We take our seats and pick up our own reading material.
A fleeting thought enters my mind: what if something is wrong? I dismiss it quickly.
The nurse calls my name. We follow her down a hallway and past a bulletin board filled with photographs of patients and their babies, clinic success stories. We settle into the small exam room where I will undergo an ultrasound.
The nurse asks how I’ve been feeling. Fine, I say. How far along are you, she wants to know. Not far, about seven weeks. She tells me to climb onto the exam table and goes to find the ultrasound tech.
I lie back on the table and lift my shirt so the tech can spread the cold jelly over my belly. Steve stands at my head so he can see the ultrasound screen. We make idle conversation with the tech as she rubs the wand across my abdomen, staring intently at the monitor.
She grows quiet.
She excuses herself, leaves the room, comes back with the nurse.
I will myself to keep the question at bay. It’s just a technical issue, I’m sure. Steve is silent. I stare out the narrow vertical window at the office building across the street.
The tech resumes her probing while the nurse looks on, occasionally giving direction as to angle or location of the wand. They both stare at the monitor.
I’m sorry, the nurse finally says. We can’t find a heartbeat.
Still. Everything still. Wait. Wait.
I’m so sorry. This happens sometimes. It’s not your fault.
Eyes tighten. Still. Breathe in, breathe out.
There’s a chance we just can’t find it on our machine. We’ll send you to the hospital for a more thorough ultrasound, just to be sure.
Okay, I say. Okay.
Wipe away the jelly, button jeans, pass the photo board, leave the club behind. Elevator to first floor to car to parking garage at hospital. Wait in lobby, staring at water flowing down a stone sculpture. Ceaseless stream of quiet, salty tears.
Steve: I’m sorry, Kim. This doesn’t seem fair.
Sit and wait until hospital tech calls my name. Walk through dimly-lit hallway in basement to room with ultrasound equipment. Breathe in, breathe out. Quiet like under water. Stare at shimmering lights overhead.
Still. No heartbeat still.
All is still.
It had been a bit of a miracle that we ended up in that ob/gyn clinic to begin with, and not in the clichéd way that every creation of new life is a miracle. Steve had endured with patience my long disinterest in having a baby and seven years of total immersion in my doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota. As grad school wound down, I began entertaining thoughts of becoming a mother. It would be my new project, the next life goal to tackle. Bachelor’s degree? Check. Marriage? Check. Ph.D.? Check. Motherhood seemed the logical next step. We abandoned efforts to prevent pregnancy at the beginning of my final year of grad school, reasoning that a summer baby would allow me to work part-time the following fall. We had decided I would limit my job search to the Twin Cities area and knew that no full-time work was forthcoming for the 2002-2003 academic year; it seemed an opportune time to start a family.
Nothing happened during the months I put the finishing touches on my dissertation – no missed periods, no pregnancy. We weren’t overly concerned; we noted the passing months but knew that an official diagnosis of infertility requires a full year of failed attempts. And besides, I was still more focused on writing and revising than I was on monitoring my body temperature and ovulation cycle.
On a beautiful, sunny day in May 2002, I walked into Northrop Auditorium in my black robe and walked out adorned with a maroon and gold hood and the shiny new title of “doctor.” A month later, I was in an ambulance in my t-shirt and tattered plaid pajama shorts en route to the emergency room. I had awoken that June morning with what I took to be another bout with my regular, painful menstrual cramps. But when nothing helped to alleviate the pain – not the 800 milligrams of Advil, not the heating pad, not the rocking and swaying or yoga posturing – I knew something was amiss. Searing pain scorched my pelvic area, making it impossible for me to stand up. Sweat soaked my t-shirt.
We learn something about ourselves when confronted with great physical pain. We learn that we are the kind of person who bears pain with stoic dignity, jaws clenched around the bullet, or who begs for mercy through a torrent of tears, or who finds solace by separating spirit from body.
I learned that I am the kind of person who pounds her fists and curses a blue streak.
The commotion brought Steve running from the bathroom, where he had been getting ready for work, to find me huddled face down on the living room floor in a warped version of child’s pose, fists flailing.
“I’ve got to go to the hospital,” I said as I beat on the rug. “FUCK! Dammit!”
“What’s the matter?” Steve asked with alarm.
“Hospital. I’ve got to get to the hospital. Shitshitshit.”
“Okay, okay. Do you want me to drive you?”
“Uhh,” --pound– “I don’t know” -- whap -- “Crap!”
The more unhinged I became, the more distraught Steve got.
“What do you want me to do? What’s the matter?”
“Cramps. More than cramps. I don’t know!” I yelled. “SHIT! I think you need to call an ambulance.”
I heard Steve on the phone, telling someone we needed an ambulance. I heard the siren as it pulled up on the street. Two young male paramedics came into the house with a stretcher. I tried to explain what was happening, that I had thought it was just cramps but then it had gotten so much worse. I controlled my tongue and managed to climb onto the stretcher. They wheeled me into the back of the ambulance, let Steve crawl in after me, and put an oxygen mask over my nose. The pain started to subside and I felt strangely relaxed as we pulled away from the house. I remember wondering if the fly on my boy-style boxer jammie shorts was hanging open, but then deciding I didn’t care if it was.
By the time we reached the ER, my oxygen level and heart rate were back to normal and the pain was manageable. The ER doctors decided the problem had been a large ovarian cyst that had twisted around itself like the curlicue on an ice cream cone. They sent me home, barefoot and bedraggled, with instructions to contact my ob/gyn for further treatment.
A few weeks later, my gynecologist performed a laparoscopy to drain or remove the cyst. What was to be a simple resolution of a common problem turned into something more, however, when the laparoscopy revealed that I had stage four endometriosis. Somehow, endometrial tissue had made its way out of my uterus, slithered around my pelvic area, and attached itself like the monster in Alien to my ovary, fallopian tube, and bowel. The horrifically painful menstrual cramps I’d suffered all my life were not, after all, typical; I was not, after all, weaker than my friends, prone to complaint about what every woman endured. Though the diagnosis provided me with some relief, it also produced some worry. Thirty to forty percent of women with endometriosis experience infertility and the more advanced the disease, the more difficult it is to achieve pregnancy. Experts believe that endometriosis can negatively impact ovarian function and egg quality, fallopian tube function, sperm motility, embryo implantation, and the ability to carry a pregnancy to term. I was at the end of the line, stage four of four, with the endo affecting multiple reproductive organs.
We scheduled another surgery for October 2002 so the doctor could remove as many of the endo adhesions as possible.
The second surgery was a big one. It required a major abdominal incision, a night or two in the hospital, and a six-week recovery. Teaching in fall semester was out. So instead, in September we celebrated the end of my grad school career with a cruise through the Mediterranean. We spent a few days in Rome, then sailed to Sicily, Santorini, Mykonos, Delos, mainland Greece, and Malta. We ate fresh figs and drove through olive groves and hiked among ancient ruins and watched kids play soccer in the twilight. It was a happy interlude between graduation and work, between minor and major surgery.
When I woke up from the anesthesia after surgery on October 9, 2002, I was sore and nauseous and minus my right ovary and fallopian tube. The doctor told me it was still theoretically possible for me to get pregnant without intervention, but that the odds were against it. For now, she said, concentrate on recovery. Then we could talk about our options.
I spent the next several weeks reading and resting. Though prior to surgery I had been concerned about the forced down time, I found it to be both necessary and refreshing. I had good reason to be kind to myself and gentle in my expectations. Instead of struggling through a long run or weight-lifting session, I enjoyed long, slow walks through the red and gold hues of autumn. Instead of reading as many articles and books as my brain could absorb, I lingered over novels entirely unrelated to my studies. I had no list of goals to accomplish, no deadlines to meet or plans to make. By the turn of the new year, however, those halcyon days had come to an end. I had landed a one-term teaching gig at a local college and Steve and I turned our thoughts back to family planning. We didn’t pursue any medical assistance – we simply allowed that we were trying to get pregnant.
Almost exactly a year after my major surgery, I was pregnant. When I showed Steve the positive result on the home pregnancy test stick, he hugged me and we jumped up and down in a silly exuberance.
Those few short weeks in the fall of 2003 were delicious. We had a happy secret and looked at each other with kindness and anticipation. Things seemed to be falling into place. I had my Ph.D., we had begun a major home remodeling project that would be completed the following spring, and we would welcome our new baby sometime around the Fourth of July 2004. Everything we did that fall seemed to be infused with a sepia-toned softness. Even though I derided the illustration on its cover as cheesy and outdated, I bought What To Expect When You’re Expecting and happily pored through its contents. I viewed other pregnant women with sisterly communion and reassured a friend, pregnant with her fifth child, that there was no need to feel bad for me because I too was pregnant. I soaked myself in our secret as we picked out granite countertops and a dishwasher for our new kitchen. Everything we did seemed to be steering us toward a new domesticity.
Monday, December 1, 2003
We get home from the hospital and I go to bed. Steve shoos away the men who are working on our home remodeling project so I can have some peace.
I lie in bed and cry until weariness overtakes me. As I drift off, I hear Steve making the phone calls.
“Hi, Mom. We have some news…”
I curl up and sink into sleep.
Thursday, December 4, 2003
I get through the rest of class. My students and I enjoy the donuts, end the semester on a happy note. Afterwards, I go home and spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping and watching tv, trying to forget about Nick, trying not to think about tomorrow.
Friday, December 5, 2003
We arrive early at the outpatient surgery center.
I am here for a D&C, so the doctor can remove the dead fetal tissue that has not dislodged itself from my uterus.
I am here to put an end to the seven weeks we spent in happy expectation of becoming a family and the four days we spent living with a crushed dream.
The nurses are gentle and kind, telling me that one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. That most women who suffer miscarriage go on to deliver healthy babies. That we can start trying again in a few months.
They try to reassure me that this is not the end, but I know better. Somewhere deep beneath rational thought, at a cellular level, I know. This was it.
I don’t say this. I don’t discourage the nurses’ kindnesses. But I know.
I welcome the sedative that starts coursing through my veins when the anesthesiologist inserts the IV. Sweet reprieve.
Moments later, a nurse is saying my name over and over.
“Kim, time to wake up. Kim. Kim.”
I resist. She is disturbing my peace.
“Come on, Kim. Can I get you some apple juice?”
She insists on pulling me back to consciousness.
“Here you go. Everything went fine. You’re okay, honey.”
For the merest moment, I think Yes, I am okay. Then I remember.
I am not okay.
The nurse gives me apple juice and Saltines, rolls me into a curtained recovery room where Steve is waiting. He is sober but polite as he listens to the nurse’s discharge instructions. He has bought me a tiny stuffed polar bear with a blue scarf and a miniature flower arrangement in a square vase.
We drive home in silence, me clinging to the bear.
Once I recovered, physically, from the D&C, I started feeling guilty about Nick. I knew he had been an unwitting victim of my bad luck, so I contacted the registrar’s office and got his home address. I wrote him a letter and apologized for my behavior. I explained that I was undergoing some personal stress but admitted that I had been out of line in yelling at him. I told him he was smart and capable, but also that he had earned his failing grade. I wished him luck.
I mailed the letter hopeful that it would reach him, still in Minnesota, trying again.
The holiday season was brutal, with its emphasis on sparkly-eyed children and family togetherness. Instead of tying bows on brightly-wrapped gifts, I dug out an old shoe box for my small collection of pregnancy artifacts: the test stick with two fading pink lines, What to Expect, an excited congratulations card from my mother, an informational packet from the doctor’s office showing the stages of a baby’s development. I tucked the box in the bottom of our hall closet, a time capsule of grief. We celebrated my mother’s birthday on the 22nd with our annual dinner-and-The-Nutcracker outing, something we had been doing since I was a little girl in velvet skirt and shiny black shoes. As the opening notes of the overture sounded, lights popping on in the windows of the stage-set town, I began to cry. I cried for the beauty of the music and the majesty of the scenery and the elegance of the dancers, but I also cried for the child who would never sit beside me to watch the magic unfold. At intermission, I faked a watery-eyed yawn, affecting a light-heartedness I did not feel in order to avoid a public display of emotion -- another family tradition.
Despite my inbred sense of stoicism, I needed the support of family and friends more than ever before as I waded through my despair. This was not a matter of choice or desire. In hard times past, I’d steel myself in silence through the worst of it, admitting the pain only in retrospect and at a safe remove. Now, however, I had no reserves of strength or will. I felt as if I were a walking wound, raw and red and exposed. Many of my friends rose to the occasion, embracing me in love and support. They sent cards or phoned or stopped by to visit. Whether eloquent or awkward, their words were a tonic, like water poured over a parched and withering bloom. Others remained silent, either oblivious to my suffering or stymied by its depth. One friend in particular, herself a mother of three, did not acknowledge my loss at all. No phone call, no email, no passing comment.
It was surprising, this lack of communication from one of my closest friends. I could not understand how she could ignore this event or, more to the point, ignore me. I knew she was aware of the situation; I’d even heard that she had asked mutual friends how I was doing.
“Why can’t she ask me directly?” I wondered aloud to Steve.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s too hard for her.”
It was possible. Beneath her tough exterior lurked a tender heart.
“Maybe it would remind her of her own miscarriage,” I offered. I tried to think back to when she’d lost a baby. Perhaps I had failed her, too.
I realized it wasn’t fair to administer this secret test, waiting for her to acknowledge my sadness. I knew that her reticence came from unease rather than disinterest and that I could have reached out to her, too. But I was the one in need. I wanted her to come to me.
She never did.
Steve and I spent the holiday in Duluth, surrounded by his family. I went through the motions on Christmas Day, trying to smile as our fourteen nieces and nephews sifted through their gifts.
In the darkest days of that December, I read about the grief associated with miscarriage. For some, it is minor and passes quickly; for others, it is debilitating and lingers for weeks, even months. Ritual, the experts said, can be especially helpful in coping with ambiguous loss – the loss of something intangible, of what might have been. Write a letter to your unborn child, they counseled, or light a candle in his honor, or release balloons. I did none of these things at the time; they seemed artificial and overly sentimental, too New Age for my taste. Instead, I focused on getting back into the routine of teaching.
I am back in class, happy for the distraction. I am teaching eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds about the Vietnam War. We read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, talk about what the soldiers carried to and from the war. About what we all carry with us through life – faith and superstition, the remembered past and the dreamed-of future, failure and regret and loss. We talk about Norman Bowker, how he drives around and around that lake on the Fourth of July having imaginary conversations with his father who won’t ask about the war. We talk about how difficult it is when our most painful experiences are not acknowledged by those closest to us, when we are separated from our story.
Silence deepens loss, I tell my students. Trust me, I say. I know.
Every once in a while, I wonder about Nick.
July 5, 2004
The Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico stretches out before us, behind us, all around us. Cotton ball clouds drift overhead and disappear behind the Oscura Mountains. We left the interstate miles ago, trading caravans of eighteen-wheelers for the occasional pickup on eastbound U.S. 380. We pull over along the edge of the Valley of Fires, look across the lava field that Spanish-speakers called malpais (badlands). It is quiet and still, save for a passing breeze that barely stirs the spiny leaves of the sotol plants that dot the blackened landscape.
In Carrizozo we turn south, taking route 54 through the Tularosa Basin. For miles, there is nothing but flat stretches of arid land lying between the Sacramento Mountains to the east and the San Andres Mountains to the west. We listen to the radio, talk now and then, but mostly we absorb the serenity of the desert. Dust devils whirl through the village of Tularosa. We take the bypass around Alamogordo and cut to the southwest on U.S. 70.
Finally, in the distance, we see what we came for: the dunes of White Sands National Monument. At first they are small and unimpressive, mounds of sand strewn with scrub brush debris. But as we enter the park and drive toward its center, the astonishing beauty of the dunes takes my breath away. Sand as white as snow rises around us in swelling and receding waves. On a sunny day like this, the reflection off the sand sears unprotected eyes; on cloudy days, the eye cannot find the horizon where land gives way to sky.
The peculiar features of the Tularosa Basin gave rise to the dunes long before the Spanish and Apache and Americans and Mexicans clashed over the land. Mountain-wash sediment and the dried-up bed of an ancient lake created a giant deposit of gypsum, left behind as waters trapped in the landlocked basin evaporated instead of flowed to the sea. The winds sifted and swirled and polished these grains into fine white sand. Even now these dynamics shape the life of the dunes. The air in the basin is so hot and dry that it will absorb up to eighty inches from a standing body of water each year, leaving behind new layers of gypsum. Winds toss these grains into dunes, then blow whole dunes across the desert floor, up and over and into one another, moving them northeast from two to thirty-eight feet a year.
We wend our way down the park road, noticing the different shapes the dunes take, some like domes, others like crescent moons. Some dunes are pure white sand, their ripples evidence of the wind that created them. Others are speckled with vegetation, creosote bushes and prickly pear cactus and soaptree yucca. We hike the Big Dune Trail and snip a piece of velvety rosemarymint, crushing its leaves in our fingers to inhale its scent. Fine silvery hairs along its leaves and stems protect it from desert dryness. Like the lizards and mice and grasshoppers whose bodies have come to mirror the whiteness of their surroundings, it is a survivor.
As we drive back out of the park, we pass families with small children sliding down the dunes on round plastic sleds or picnicking at shaded tables. We make one final stop before we exit, get out of the car to take in the beauty one last time.
I realize with a start that today was my due date, the day we two should have become three.
I don’t say anything to Steve. I doubt he remembers this detail and don’t want to force it upon him if he hasn’t.
I consider it in silence as I stare at the white sand, decide this is my ritual, my letting go of the lost future of our past. As I look across the dunes, I understand.
Though they seem still, there is motion. Inch by inch the dunes move across the desert.
Though they look barren, there is life teeming within those billion grains of sand. The white grasshopper and the rosemarymint proclaim themselves.
Though they are destroyed, they are reconstituted. Shape-shifting, they abide.
Post-Script: June 2007
I sit down at my computer and open my email. I find this message:
Hello, Professor. My name is Nick. I was a student in your class in the Fall of 2003. I was digging through some old things and I found the letter that you sent me after…well, let’s just say it wasn’t the best conversation that I’ve ever had with a teacher. But I am writing you to thank you. Every word that you said I felt it, and it meant something because you were the only teacher that so clearly showed that you gave a damn, and that meant something to me. Since then, I have turned things around and am now back in college. You helped me out by plainly pointing out that I was screwing myself, and I got the message. …Thank you for caring…
I sit back in my chair and smile.
Nick. He made it.
I don’t have too much time to relish the victory. It’s time to make supper for me and Steve and our son, Tu.
Kim Heikkila has a PhD in American Studies with a minor in Feminist Studies from the University of Minnesota. She taught U.S. and women’s history for more than ten years before leaving academia to start her own oral history consulting business, Spotlight Oral History. She has worked with Vietnam veterans, immigrant entrepreneurs, court of appeals judges, birth mothers who surrendered babies for adoption at the peak of the maternity home movement, and antiwar activists. Her writing has been published in book, creative nonfiction, and historical essay form. She and her husband adopted their son from Vietnam in 2006.