Mary and Goldfish

The Thai surgeon was stuck in traffic, so I was lying in the surgical room in Bangkok wrapped in a strait-jacket-like device designed to keep my arms from flopping over the side of the surgical gurney. The sterile room and what it stood for was horrifying.

          I was having an ectopic pregnancy, and the surgery would remove the baby–three months old–from my left fallopian tube. I researched, cried, and begged the doctors to do something to save this baby. I knew better, though. I’d researched my first tubal pregnancy after nearly dying from it. Ectopic pregnancy is a cause of first trimester deaths. A tubal pregnancy is nonviable. Nothing could keep the tube from rupturing and hemorrhaging, killing the baby and me.

          The first ectopic pregnancy, just three years earlier, rendered me chalky white and caused me to bleed and cramp. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. I ended up lying on a cold apartment floor using an old flip phone on a low battery to call a British doctor. Thank God I did. How easily I could have taken two Advil and died on that floor, bled out. My husband would have found me in a mess on the black and white tiles—black and white and red all over! I imagined him arising from his all-night session writing our tourist guides, him stumbling into the living room finding me, stopping suddenly, and checking my pulse; finding none.

          In 1997, during the annus horribilis (when tanks and military rolled into Phnom Penh) I rode a motorcycle taxi to a dusty clinic on Sihanouk Boulevard. I was floating faintly, but panicked because I was hemorrhaging, dizzy and cold. The young technician with the ultrasound tool didn’t know I understood Khmer language, and turned to my Cambodian friend, “She’s dead if she doesn’t have a surgery now.” Blood was all the way up to my liver; trouble deep.

          Doctors carried me on a gurney up a steep flight of narrow stairs. It took about three months and an additional surgery to recover from the initial surgery. I overdid recovery after the two-day “factional fighting” that had happened the week after my surgery, wringing and hanging wet towels to hang outside after the bombs and AK-47’s quieted. That was three years earlier.

          This go-around, I’d returned from a few weeks in Canada and the U.S. I was taking a break and getting advice from my closest family and friends. In Cambodia, my husband had distanced himself. We were together but not together. Those in troubled marriages know what I mean. He occupied our space, but didn’t talk or smile. When it was time for dinner, he sat opposite of me and ate. When it was time to watch a movie, he wasn’t on the wooden couch with me, my head in his lap. He occupied a chair far away.

          Some nights, he took a shower and put on a black t-shirt and khaki jeans. Then I saw him reach for the cologne I bought him, smoothing it over his cheeks, his neck, and then lightly over his body. Then he left, kicking on his motorcycle and staying gone for hours.

          “Where are you going?” I might ask.

          “Just out to clear my head,” he responded. Then he left. I looked at photographs of my childhood home in Oregon and imagined the cool, green grass near the pond, the weeping willows and blackberries growing nearby. The Canadian Geese flying overhead in winter.

          I looked at our wedding photos at my family farm in Oregon, his handsome face with blue eyes, me in the white lace dress. Our wedding, seven years earlier, was a distant happiness.

          I went up to bed alone, watching the goldfish in the tank near my bed. I needed to leave, and it was very sad. I lit a candle near my bed and watched the brass statue of dancers throw shadows on the wall. The fish and dancing statue and a carved wooden bird went to bed with me each night. Wilson in Cast Away bore a resemblance to my inanimate friends, which I realized when it came out late that year.

          In Canada, I confided everything to Malgosia, a dear friend I met in Phnom Penh. She said, “You’re still young. Get out of there.” When I returned to Cambodia, my husband and I slept together once—a perfunctory, loveless session in which he tried to say, “See? We’re still together.” It was the first time in over a year we slept together, but it was enough. I was pregnant.

          When I told him, he said, “I don’t think so. It can’t possibly be mine.” I was horrified, bordering on hysteria, saying “I’ve never once cheated on you.” I was scared. The memory of the pain from three years earlier was fresh. The surgeon didn’t believe in pain management, and had treated a laparotomy—the long belly cut—with paracetamol until I’d slapped the blood-splattered wall, moaning in pain. Now, my husband refused to go to Bangkok, an hour flight, with me.

          “One of us has to keep this business afloat,” he said, aloof.

          He left the room, angry. My stomach cramped, and I took deep breaths. I sat down and booked a flight to Bangkok for the next day. I fell asleep with the goldfish again, watching them circle and rise in the tank. The next morning, I was up and gone early.

          Getting my bag into the overhead compartment made me gasp in pain, but suddenly Sharon, a teacher friend, was there. She helped me, and then went to the clinic in Bangkok with me. I met my baby on an ultrasound monitor with a friend by my side, and burst into tears as I was given the heart-wrenching news. At forty, my chances at motherhood were over.

          Now on a gurney, tears came. I cried so hard I could scarcely breathe. I needed to calm down. I was too drugged to move, and breathing was hard. Hail, Mary came to me. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but mantras and prayers calm me tremendously. I’d learned Hail Mary listening to the Catholic radio station in the U.S., driving into the small town near the family farm. I’d smiled at the time. Why was I listening to this?

          Now, here I was with a bright surgical light staring me down, rather unexpectedly meditating the words blessed art thou amongst women. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. I was not at the hour of my death, was I? Perhaps. Not only that, but I was on the other side of the world, without family nearby, let alone the comfort of a loving spouse. I was grateful to know the New Zealand woman, an angel who was seven months along, who sat outside. Oh, to have someone here is so comforting, I thought. My husband had cried when I called him, and said, “I can’t go through this again.” He pushed me away as I sat in a wheelchair, calling from a cold payphone in the hospital. He was done with me. He’d fly in later, he said. Done with me, I thought.

          Holy Mary, Mother of God....

          As I lay in that bright white room, I considered mothers, of their struggles bringing us to life. In Cambodia, when a woman is giving birth, they call it “crossing the river,” the dangerous, cold depths. My own mother was back in Washington State. Her own maternal struggles had knocked her down. She lost her only son, my brother. Tears rolled down into my ears. The narrow gurney barely contained my big western body, my arms bound like chicken wings. I struggled to focus, meditating my way through this snafu.

          Full of grace, the Lord is with thee...

          I had recited through the Hail Mary about fifty times when the doctor breezed in.

          “Have you been crying? What’s wrong with you?” I was angry immediately. How could he be so dismissive?

          “I’m pregnant and losing a baby. What did you think I was crying about?”

          Sometimes the idiocy of doctors is too much to bear. I chalked it up to a cultural difference. What was wrong with me? I was living a lie. I decided I wasn’t going to deny issues any more. I was losing a baby, a second baby. My marriage was dead, not just troubled, but dead.

          And I, a forty-year-old woman, was going to have to salvage this situation and get myself out of this misery. The mask was placed on my face, as I resolved to deal with the mess of my life. As I became sedated, my own mantra ran through my mind: I’m strong, I’m healthy, and I no longer sleep with goldfish and statues. And within a year, it was true.

DEBRA GROVES HARMAN’s memoir Dancing in Circles: My Expat Life in Cambodia is forthcoming in 2019. She’s a substitute teacher and a CNF Submissions Reader for The Nasiona. She plays in a band (keyboards and fiddle), and likes literature, photography, and walking the Camino in Spain. Her work has appeared most recently in The Write Launch and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters.