On a Durban beach, hundreds of translucent orbs carrying long blue cords lay shrivelling in the sun. Gail pulls me aside before I can step down on a stinger; I’ve mistaken them for bits of plastic wrap.
A lifeguard in red trunks tells us that swimming now is dangerous, in spite of the crowd bobbing in the water. We should come back at 5pm, when the tide is lower and maybe (if we are lucky) the winds will have shifted, carrying the jellyfish away.
But this is our one and only chance to see the beach; we leave for Canada in two days. “You have to dip your toes in the Indian Ocean at least once,” insists my father.
So we wade into the water, with the masses. Some are wearing swimming shirts, but others are in t-shirts and pants. Only a handful are swimming in trunks and bathing suits. I stare at the water, vigilant. I’m so cautious that I hardly feel the warm salty froth, tickling me between my toes and nudging the hairs at the bottom of my calf, where I neglected to shave.
I think I see one – and jump back, out of the tide’s reach. “Let’s sit on the beach,” Gail offers. “It’s not worth the risk.” We find a spot and I pull out some tiny, white towels from a plastic Checkers bag. I really ought to have picked better towels from the linen closet at Dad’s house. The towel barely covers my bum.
But the sand is the right temperature, and I dig my toes into the grit as we look out in silence at the ocean and the crowds. Mothers with tiny children wear sparkling, silky saris that they have to hold up, just out of the current’s reach. Cloaked Muslim women, all in black, let their robes carry in the breeze. Zulu women in church hats laugh and tease each other.
All watch the children, who giggle at the same pitch as the water laps at their tiny toes. I think, no child of mine would be in that water. Just eight weeks along, I hold my belly, protectively.
~ ~ ~
There are no presents this year. In Durban, there are few lights, few Christmas trees. Here, Christmas means summer, picnics, family time in the great outdoors. It doesn’t mean snow and frost and naked trees. It doesn’t mean presents, stacked three high in front of a shimmering fir tree. The fir trees here look anorexic and have hardly any branches to speak of. On the highway, we see them in tidy rows, waiting to be harvested.
I wake up Christmas morning in my twin bed, placed as close as possible to Gail’s twin bed, in Dad’s new office. He’s just moved into this 100-year-old house that creaks and smells funny. His stuff is still in boxes, but his computer hums obnoxiously in the corner. This morning, I don’t crawl into bed with Gail: I pick up the remote and turn on the air conditioner to cool the room so she can sleep.
In the den, I open my laptop and think I might write. But before I can type a word, I feel it: a nagging cramp under my belly button. The second time it comes, it is a short but stabbing pain. It’s not right – it can’t be right – it’s Christmas Day, for God’s sake. I tell myself, “You’re being a hypochondriac again.” Like the time I thought I had appendicitis and spent five hours in the emergency room on a Friday night. Ridiculous.
At Christmas Dinner, at Dad’s boss’ house, Gail and I retreat to the opposite end of the patio to avoid the chain smokers. We sit on folding chairs and she rubs my back as I fight growing irritation. The cigarette smoke, the diet Coke Dad poured into my glass, the mosquitoes that fly so silently before they dig in – everything here is toxic. I hold my belly now, as the cramps keep coming, but I say nothing. First World problems, and all that. Here, in this land of so much poverty, I cannot appreciate a good meal and kind strangers. This evening is as perfect as a Canadian Christmas in South Africa could be: the hand-made Christmas crackers, the holiday trivia game, the decorations hauled to Durban from Edmonton – but it all feels wrong.
I want to be at the farm, with Gail, stuffed full of her mother’s yams and napping on the couch with the dog grumbling at my feet. I want to stand on the deck in the cold, looking up at the stars in the pitch-black sky, surrounded by bison, shadowy firs, and snowy fields. I hold onto this Canadian cliché with my whole heart.
~ ~ ~
The day after Christmas, I awake to a hint of crimson. It screams at me from a wad of toilet paper. The sun is streaming into the bathroom and I stare, unblinking, at the moss-coloured wallpaper, and the big, white, claw-foot tub. I stare numbly and realize the pain is getting worse.
Gail and I talk ourselves into believing that it’s normal; that my uterus is just expanding. The Internet tells us so. When my father suggests we go for a drive up the coast to check out some of the beachside towns, we agree. Then we stop for lunch at Umhlanga, and a trip to the restaurant bathroom confirms what I’ve been dreading: a long, slippery streak of bright red. Any vestige of normalcy is gone.
I brace myself against the stall and weep until I can stand the heat no more. I stumble back to the patio, red-eyed, sit at the table: “I’m miscarrying.” I hate this word. It’s so medical, so incomplete. It does not convey the gnawing pain inside my belly, the growing void.
~ ~ ~
In a slurry of algae, a crane nudges a white mass, floating atop the water. I think for a moment that her beak is like a pair of chopsticks in a bowl of murky miso soup, pushing a piece of tofu around. It takes me a moment to realize she is trying to revive her limp-necked chick.
When the thought crystallizes, I gasp and reach for my belly. Gail leads me into the next enclosure, but it’s too late: the image is burnt into the back of my eyes. The grief stricken mother, trying to wake her child. I want to hold that bird in my arms, console her.
I have no idea that, in less than two weeks, I’ll be finding my own lifeless chick in the toilet bowl of a South African hospital. I will recoil at what I’m seeing – intellectually stunned but emotionally numb. I cannot find my olive-sized fetus in the mess, but I look for it.
I open the door slowly, and look for the nurse. She is not there, so I creep down the hallway, hoping no one opens that door and finds the horror show I’ve left behind. I find her tending to a young man sitting on a gurney. “I think…maybe it’s finished,” I say, dry-eyed and clinical. As if I need expert validation. In my shock, I examined it in the palm of my hand, like a medical examiner.
This isn’t something you read about in pregnancy books. They do not tell you that you will see your own insides in Technicolor. They don’t tell you that you will cry so hard and deep you think your ribs will crack. You will want them to. Because you will never know why.
~ ~ ~
We kill time in the Johannesburg airport by browsing the souvenir shops. They’re all the same: shelves and shelves of over-priced wooden carvings and gaudy beaded jewellery and stuffed giraffes and t-shirts.
But I’m drawn to the ivory orbs. I hold one in my hand. It is cool to the touch, heavier than it looks. I poke an index finger through the hole at the bottom. It’s just an ostrich egg, but I want it. Gail isn’t impressed. “They’re too plain,” she says, “what about one of these?” She points to the rows of eggs with prints of maps and zebras and other designs. But they’re ridiculously expensive.
Finally, we spot another batch – this time, with holes drilled into the sides and animal designs etched into the shells. We pick one.
Covered in bubble wrap, and nestled between my feet, that hollow egg makes its way back to Edmonton, miraculously intact. When we awake at 4 am the next day, I fish it out of its bag, free it from layers of packaging. Gail finds a tea light and a barbecue lighter. In the dark living room, finally alone with our grief, we watch our egg glow. “I thought it would be brighter,” Gail says. But I can make out just the barest hint of an elephant with her trunk raised, triumphant or heartbroken.