By Caroline Manring
Featured Art: Bird by Emmett Reese
. . .as if loss were a fire he was purified in again and again, until he wasn’t a ghost anymore.
—James Galvin, The Meadow
Running is the only thing that made sense to me after miscarrying at fifteen weeks pregnant. I had almost lost my own life as well, and spent three weeks in two different hospitals, linked by a trippy ambulance ride with an EMT who thought I couldn’t hear him singing along to U2. Pretty much everyone thought I was unconscious for much of my hospitalization. I wasn’t, of course, and between waves of Fentanyl I noted or hallucinated many searing moments, which, though warped by fear and pain, were still less bizarre than the daily life I had to get back to, eventually.
Even after I came home from the hospital, crying because I had to be wheeled out to the car, and even when I slept most of the day, propped on our eglantine couch with the help of ten or so lesser drugs, anything other than the thought of running again was absurd: people walking across the street? Ridiculous. They weren’t screaming. Sunsets? Ruthless. They ended everything, over and over and over. Someone else’s baby? An abrupt and tenacious violence; a violation of the possible, an extravagant body made radioactive by my pain, like a fur coat soaked with blood from a bucket I hurled myself.
I went running two days ago, which was four years, three half marathons, and two healthy babies down the road from that early time of trying and failing to return to life. I left the driveway and let my feet decide where to go. I usually know my route before I leave, so I can prepare mentally. I like to have my own basic nuggets of truth and instruction ready to dole out to myself, all within easy reach (the first three miles and the second to last are the hardest; set the mechanism and don’t get in the way; count your breaths; run smarter, not harder; etc.). But this time I just started running and wondered where I might go—where I even could go, given the limited number of routes from my house, all of which I felt I’d run a hundred times.
I began running downhill, which is unusual. I generally like to frontload the hardest work of a run, so my own choice was curious to me, and also invigorating: the downhill beginning. What would it be like to try to warm up carefully on a fast, steep decline? What would the end of the run be like, coming up a stair-climber of a hill for the last two miles?
I ran past the opportunity to turn right, which would take me around our large, farmland block—a handy 5k plus cool-down when completed. I remembered, for no reason I can know, that there was a small dirt trail deep behind the hospital complex at the bottom of our road that would thread me through the underbrush and down the side of the lake valley to one of the gems of our area, the Black Diamond Trail. I would even be home before lunch if I kept on pace.
I’ve done the bulk of my training on the Black Diamond Trail because it is well-surfaced as an old railroad bed filled in with small, tightly packed but easy-feeling gravel, kind to the eyes with many birds and farms and lake views, and long enough to get a girl ready for a half marathon. It’s a home base of sorts, so its call was clear and strong, and I responded, picking my way past one medical building after another. I followed the outer road of the campus, with my left foot crunching last week’s snow and my right hitting crumbling pavement.
The main part of the hospital is well-planned, clean, and not overly institutional-looking. As you move around it, the associate structures gradually become older in construction, until at the narrowest part of an oblong road system, tucked steeply against drainage ditches, parking lots, and a few humble assemblies of white pine, the buildings begin to look almost Tudor in style. One supports a system of ivy on its face. None of them have obvious signage, other than one “Main Entrance” sign over a homely looking door, and a So-and-so Memorial Building label, which gives no clue to its function.
If you keep going past even these secondary and tertiary buildings, you round the narrowest part of the oval campus, and you’re down where the maintenance vehicles are kept, in a darkly graveled lot. There’s a yellow seasonal-use gate below the drainage ditch that is closed and locked as often as not, but is easy enough for a pedestrian to go around. This day, it was open, and there were fresh vehicle tracks bridging old pavement to the dirt road I remembered from summer, the time I found it on a google map by zooming in so far the street names all went away. I always wonder who drives that road, since it eventually terminates in a small, brambly hummock decorated by beer bottles and condoms right alongside the Black Diamond Trail, and there is no way for cars to go any further or cross onto the narrow path.
I also wonder who parks in those terminal lots at the back of the hospital. They can’t be vagrants; they clearly work in the buildings—their cars stand in bunches near the entrances. I wonder who they are and what they do all day. Administration? Buildings and grounds?
What strikes me suddenly and for the first time on this run is the likely utility of the furthest, lowest building: I’ve seen it many times before, but never bothered to make any sense of it. Up against the building’s stone and concrete back, from the last patch of grass before the woods, rises a thirty- or forty-foot, round, narrowing chimney. It’s got an iron door on its base. It is, in all likelihood, or the likelihoods of the landscape of my mind, an incinerator.
Where do your tonsils go when they’ve taken them out? Your uncle’s finger that had to come off? Medical waste lives outside the realm of property or propriety, I have to suppose, unless a patient has requested to be given what is removed from the body. I had no use for the gallbladder a surgeon and his team removed at this hospital, right here, at the misleading beginning of my medical apocalypse; even if I had wanted what I thought was a faulty organ for my freezer or some more grisly method of preservation, I wouldn’t have remembered to ask because I was in so much pain at the time. The description of the tiny thing after they pried it out was almost charming: green, well-shaped, resilient, something like that. In other words, the words no one said, an entirely healthy gallbladder.
The terrible pain in my back, we later discovered, was caused by the slow but steady decline of my liver from a blood clotting disorder that had been ignited by the pregnancy and fanned to flames by the onset of the second trimester. I signed all the forms hospital staff put in front of me, after two ER visits in one day, including the form that said that fetal demise was a possible but unlikely result of cholecystectomy, as in the case of almost all surgeries. It looked, to me, like a “there-there” form, the kind they have to churn out to cover their asses. And even if it had looked more serious than that, I would have signed. I was in a type of pain that I was beginning to understand as untenable, unsustainable. Either it had to end or I did. I didn’t know just how correct that thought was.
In truth, I don’t miss my gallbladder, and the worst part of the surgery at the time was how sick the anesthesia made me afterwards. I vomited as if to empty the earth’s mantle, which is bad under any circumstances, but especially when you have fresh incisions in your abdomen, abiding and violent morning sickness, and continued, inconceivable pain in your back—the same pain you came in with, you begin to realize, with a cloudy mixture of denial, outrage, and growing helplessness. Even so, the gallbladder and its likely disposal in some industrial looking place, like this very smokestack I’m staring at, and perhaps its actual disposal in this exact spot, isn’t what bothers me. Instead, the chimney with the little iron portal at its base makes me wonder what to call the body that grew inside my own and died and was taken away.
In the paperwork, the terminology was “products of conception,” in the part where they described what was removed from inside me, after my gallbladder, somewhere later on along the timeline I haven’t yet managed to recreate clearly for myself. In fact, I don’t even know whether it was at this hospital where the baby died, or at the other one, on the other side of the ambulance ride. Chronology was not something my brain could track, while it was noting the lyrics of U2, the EMT’s voice as he sang along, and the greasy feeling of my hair over those weeks, which wasn’t all bad, because I think it kept me warmer.
On first glance, this term, “products of conception,” looked unbearably raw, aggressively insensitive, even almost laughable. Recently, though, I’ve thought about whose job it might be to come up with the language to use in the accounting of such surgeries. Simply put, that job has got to suck. You can’t say “baby,” “fetus,” “organism,” “child,” “progeny,” or even “offspring,” for nothing has sprung off of anything yet. It’s all been so tightly woven, between this world and that, here and there, real and imagined, for four months, that no one would ever get away with calling it any one thing at all. So, ultimately, I decide to give the poor sod who wrote the copy for the medical forms a pass for the galling “products of conception,” but the English professor in me wonders whether to suggest “results” instead of “products,” if only to have made a suggestion of my own, to have participated somehow, so neither I nor the poor sod is all alone.
I couldn’t have dealt with collecting the products of my second surgery, the products of conception, even if I had wanted to, and so didn’t even think to ask for the physical proof to dispose of myself or put to rest in my own way. So I don’t suppose I can regret that non-decision. But I so regret failing to ask what the sex of the baby had been. The only reason I can think this might have mattered is it would have been the only real information we had about the dream that had been in my body for a while. We had one sonogram picture, and many apprehensive imagined futures, but no tangibles. I imagine, because at long last I am able to imagine again, that the life form was a male, or as we might have said, if we’d been afforded by my disintegrating body just a few more months to cook the little thing at least most of the way through, from avocado-sized to something more like the heft of a small melon, “it’s a boy.” That phrase, for some reason, is comforting—except on days like this one, when I am faced with the rude, raw structures of impossible, probable facts, like the incinerator chimney.
I don’t pause long. Maybe I don’t pause at all. I have my favorite trail-running shoes on; I’ve developed a running shoe fetish that gets me frequent-buyer points at the local running store.
The trick to running downhill—as I found during a five-minute internet search before training for my third half-marathon, for which I had resolved to make hills my dear, dear friends—is to imagine you are running with a grapefruit between your collarbones and chin. You hold this imagined diminutive but tender and meaty fruit lightly. This keeps your eyes about ten to fifteen meters in front of you, where they’re most useful to your decision-making about the terrain to come, and lifts your chest a bit, opening your form and taking away tension from elsewhere in your body. To keep up with the ease of movement this more ginger, agile positioning creates, you have to quicken and shorten your stride. You have to be unafraid to go faster, and do your best to strike the ground on the middle of your foot, in order to protect your precious knees from getting pounded into grist. The technique works brilliantly, and I focus on it as I go down the slithering, dwindling dirt road to the Black Diamond Trail.
I’m not advocating for running past terrors. I’ll never do that, mostly, admittedly, because it’s not possible. The more I run, the more I encounter and have to make friends or at least gain familiarity with the hardest bits, both of my own body of pain and those of others. The incinerator will be there on my next run. Having described it here, I’ve already made it, at least, a lesser terror. The closer I come to it, with my feet and my thoughts and my words, the more I see spaces in myself that I didn’t know were there, like turns taken and turns passed—like running routes that have always been there and I’ve never bothered to follow. Today, I ran the route again, to see if I’d missed anything. Nope: I had it all more or less correct; the only detail I’d failed to notice was the iron ladder up the side of the chimney, all the way to the top. I imagine someone’s job is to go up there, clean out a filter, clear the way for the chimney’s work.
I begin to think that with each step of a twenty-thousand step run I have one more chance to notice the spaces in my body where various phenomena reside: oxygen, pain, organs, muscles, blood, freedom, knots, wishes, limitations, and a painstakingly reassembled wherewithal. Some of these, like blood and organs, are the places where things that were not just me lived. There was a product of conception there, somewhere, being half-dreamed and half-lived, for four months.
One of the things that has caused me the most tears is the question I come to over and over again, though less frequently now, and voice, with the most excruciating vulnerability I’ve ever experienced, to my husband: “do you think it hurt? Dying?”
“No,” he says each time, with absolute certainty. “I’m sure it felt like nothing at all.”
The thought of nothing at all isn’t terrifying to me. Nothing at all is lovely—the place where all things reside or not and may or may not begin and it does or doesn’t matter. Nothing depends on me where there is nothing at all. There are just steps, one and another and another. There is only the movement itself.
When I run, I’m fully re-inhabiting a body that almost died, a body inside which another, perhaps separate, life ended. I’m working the pains and numbnesses that grind at me by putting more oxygen and space into them. Now and then, lately, I’m visiting a narrative that was more horror than fact for years. I’m also building my cardio and getting calves I never had. (The feeling of my calves touching each other for the first time in the bathtub startled me so much a couple years ago I laughed out loud to the weeping faucet).
Running is, at heart, a very plain thing. It’s so beautifully plain, in fact, that eventually, if I keep at it long enough, if I compile another thousand or ten thousand or forty thousand steps today or next week or the next, it will pluck me, one limb at a time, one lobe at a time, out of the strange and magical world, where words and hospitals and endings happen. It will draw me towards reality, which nests there, patiently, inside the dream, quiet as a Sage Grouse, steadfastly warming what she can’t yet imagine.
Caroline Manring’s Manual for Extinction won the 2012 National Poetry Review Book Prize, and her chapbook, No Postman, was published by Split Oak Press. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has been a Teaching Writing Fellow and a Leggett-Schupes Fellow, and her work has appeared in Colorado Review, Drunken Boat, H_NGM_N, Jubilat, Juked, Sixth Finch, Sprung Formal, Seneca Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She raises twins and two parrots in Ithaca, NY, where she also leads bird walks and plays fiddle in a family band.