Würmchen, by Elizabeth Heineman
Editor’s note: This piece appeared in the spring 2011 edition of The Examined Life with a misspelling in the word “Würmchen.”
There’s an old pear tree in our back yard. It’s too close to the house. One of these days, a windstorm will blow one of the high branches onto the roof, and we’ll wish we’d had it removed earlier. Already, windstorms have taken down the three ancient apple trees that were on the property when I bought the house. The pear tree is very sick. The center is nearly hollow, and you can see the rot in the branches. It’s only a matter of time.
But I hate the thought of chopping it down. It’s the last of the old trees in the yard. It blossoms early in the spring, and if there’s a late snowfall, then the next morning you can look out the window to see branches full of delicate white flowers dusted with snow. Then the tree leafs out and provides the only shade we have in the back yard. Then the pears ripen. No matter how ripe they get, they are as hard as bricks. You can’t penetrate them with your teeth. So we don’t pick them. Instead, they fall to the ground, where they attract yellow jackets. It used to be my son’s job to pick up the fallen pears and dump them in the compost. He was scared of the yellow jackets until he figured out that if he waited till after dusk, the yellow jackets would be gone.
An old man used to come by to pick the pears. He had known Bucky Bock, who had lived in the house till he died in 1993. Bucky’s parents had built the house for their wedding in the late nineteenth century, and Bucky and his brother Lester lived there till they died—neither of them ever married. Bucky outlived Lester and died in the house he had been born in, by which I mean that he had a Franklin stove in the kitchen, and a cistern and outhouse in the back. Somewhere along the line, the city had required that he build an indoor toilet, so he did, in the basement, and the first time it plugged up was the last time he used it. As he got older and more infirm, the outhouse migrated closer and closer to the house.
After Bucky died, the house—a shack, really—went up for auction, and an architect bought it. He modernized it and built on a couple of additions, and then his wife got Parkinson’s and they had to move into a condo that required less care. So I bought it.
My first couple of years there, when I was out in the yard, old men would drive by in old pick-up trucks, stop, wave me over to them, squint at me, and say, “So, you moved into this house.”
“Yes, I did,” I’d say.
They’d squint harder, and ask: “Did you know Bucky Bock?”
“Nope, I never met him.”
Then the old men would tell me their stories about Bucky Bock. Most of them involved the indignity of his last years, when he was refused admission to the senior center because he didn’t wash. The old men hated that. Bucky had cut their hair at his barbershop when they were little kids. He and his brother had taken care of themselves all those years, hard-working guys, never hurt a fly, though Bucky was probably what they used to call feeble-minded. And then these young girls at the senior center, who didn’t know a thing about life, had the nerve to throw him out.
I’d nod and mull over the story.
The next question was usually: “You got any use for them pears?”
I didn’t. One old man asked if he could take them, and I said yes. He fed them to his hogs—he said it made their meat sweet. After a couple of years he stopped coming. I figured he must have died. But then another man showed up, with grimy pants and crooked plastic-rimmed glasses. He asked: “Did you know Bucky Bock?” Then he asked: “You got any use for them pears?”
For several years he came to gather the pears. He disapproved of me, because I didn’t want them. I should make pear juice out of them, he said. Pear juice had wonderful qualities. It would keep you from getting cancer, cure your gout, prevent arthritis, keep you from getting senile. I was a fool not to make pear juice from all those pears. He was a pretty cranky old man, but if he wanted to have the pears, he was welcome to them.
What I wish had happened is this: I wish that when they’d discovered at the hospital that Würmchen was dead, they had told me what to expect with the abortion I was going to have to induce at home. I wish they’d told me that there would be some cramping, hard to say exactly how much since every case is different, but maybe something like really bad menstrual cramps, so Glenn and I wouldn’t have wasted our emotional energies preparing for something like childbirth. I wish they’d told me roughly how much blood and who-knows-what-else was going to come out—enough that I’d need to use maxi pads and change them pretty frequently—and that, at the height of it, there might be the kind of flow that if I just sat on the toilet, a rush might come out—so that Glenn and I didn’t have to wonder whether we would need to put a plastic sheet on the bed, to prepare a space for the large volume of mess we imagined might come out of me.
I wish, I wish above all that they’d told me that if I wanted to bury Würmchen, then I should collect everything that came out in a bowl, because Würmchen would be somewhere in there. Würmchen was our Little Worm. Würmchen should be buried with her big brother Thor, stillborn less than a year earlier.
Instead, this is what happened. When they discovered via ultrasound that Würmchen was dead, they didn’t say so; they pretended they needed to do more tests. The ultrasound technician said, “I’m just going to take a look at your ovaries to give your uterus a chance to relax.” Ha ha. I’d seen that shot of my uterus, with the longish blob, less well-defined than it had been during the last ultrasound three weeks earlier, and with no heartbeat. I didn’t say anything. I let them stall.
When they returned to my uterus, they were very, very sympathetic. They told me how sorry they were. They didn’t use the word “dead”: they said, “We can’t find a heartbeat.” The technician patted my knee and gave it a little squeeze. They told me again how sorry they were. The physician’s assistant touched my arm. She told me the size indicated a gestational age of seven weeks and six days, though I was ten weeks pregnant; Würmchen had been dead for a while. They told me they were very sorry. They asked if I was alone at the hospital that day, and when I said “yes,” they asked if I’d be OK getting home on my own.
The physician’s assistant went over my options with me. I could wait until I miscarried naturally. It might happen within two weeks, or it might happen within four, but there was a one-in-five chance that it would not happen even then, in which case they’d have to do a D&C. In some cases, miscarriages result in hemorrhaging, and then I’d have to go to the hospital. I could take misoprostol, which is often paired with the abortion pill, but which, it turns out, is pretty effective at inducing abortion all by itself. This had the same risks as allowing things to proceed naturally—there was a chance of hemorrhage, and a chance it wouldn’t work, in which case I’d need a D&C. But it would happen quickly: you take the drug and see if the miscarriage occurs within twenty-four hours; if it doesn’t, you do one more round; and if that doesn’t work, you know it’s not going to happen and you schedule your D&C. Or I could go straight to the D&C.
I chose misoprostol. We discussed timing. The next day, Wednesday, I’d be home from teaching by five or so. Glenn wouldn’t be home till seven thirty. Should I wait for him to be there? No, they said, go ahead and take the drug when you get home. It’ll take a couple of hours to kick in anyway, and if you wait till Glenn is home, you’ll be up all night. They gave me a painkiller. I asked how bad the cramping would be. The physician’s assistant said: pretty bad. The nurse, who had just joined us—who recognized me from the tai chi class we’d both just started—said, well, the gestational sac is only about this big—she held her fingers about two inches apart—so your cervix doesn’t have to widen all that far. They told me they’d call on Thursday to see how it went. They told me to make a follow-up appointment for two weeks later. They handed me a folder from Touching Hearts, the local resource for survivors of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death. They seemed a little embarrassed and told me I didn’t need to read the stuff in it right away. I told them it was no problem, I knew Touching Hearts, I’d had a stillbirth last year.
I waited till I was on my way to the car to start crying. Once I got home I went running and visited Thor, who lies in a cemetery just two blocks from home. I told him Würmchen was dead, and we would bring Würmchen to be with him in a couple of days. Thor was a big brother now; he would have his little brother or sister with him and could show the little one how it was. He was an expert on how it was to be a dead baby; I didn’t know anything about it. Months earlier, I had dreamed about Thor greeting me in a big hot air balloon descending to earth where I lay dying, and he had been so confident and happy. Maybe now Thor could greet Würmchen with that big smile on his face and the wave that looked like an embrace.
I talked to Würmchen as I ran. I wanted to have her out in the sunlight one last time. The weather had turned just the day before: it was fall now, bright and cool. I told Würmchen about the cemetery, and about how we always came to visit, and so did the squirrels and the deer and the bugs. I felt like I was doing a sped-up version of everything I had done when I brought Thor home from the funeral parlor: carrying him around, showing him his gravesite, talking to him about all the animals. I knew Glenn and I would go for a walk with Würmchen that evening, to the other spots we’d visited with Thor—the playground, the neighborhood streets. But it would all be compressed into one evening. It felt stale, rehearsed. It felt indispensible.
It wasn’t as bad as the stillbirth. Later, when it was over, I told people that we were going from worse to bad. But I also told Glenn I now feared the trifecta if I got pregnant again: miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death. All the grieving literature lumps them together: miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death.
Glenn didn’t know yet. He had considered my appointment to be for a “peace-of-mind ultrasound.” That’s what the nurse had called it when I’d phoned on Monday because I’d noticed some spotting. She’d assured me that some twenty percent of pregnancies involve spotting, and that if there were a problem there would be nothing they could do anyway. Still, she offered to schedule me for a “peace-of-mind ultrasound.” I’d thought that wasn’t a good use of medical resources and wondered if I could donate my ultrasound to some woman without health insurance who would otherwise get no prenatal care. But when I was still bleeding a day later, I called and asked to have the ultrasound after all.
I walked into the house to find Glenn taking off his jacket. “Did you just go running?” he asked. “I was just about to go, too.”
I put my arms around his neck. “Würmchen is dead.”
He closed his eyes, turned his head away and down, like he was avoiding a blow coming at him in slow motion. He turned his head back, leaned his forehead against mine, and started crying. “Fuck,” he said, “Fuck. It’s not fair.”
“I know,” I said.
We cried there for a while. Then we moved to the sofa and cried some more while I shivered in my damp running clothes. I told him I’d induce an abortion the next evening. They’d given me a prescription for the pills; they would induce cramping, and Würmchen would come out.
“Just like that?” he asked. He sat up, appalled. “That doesn’t seem to give the whole thing much…I don’t know, much dignity. They just leave you to do it at home?”
“The alternative is a D&C. Scraping it out,” I said. “Bright lights, legs in stirrups, speculum hanging out of me, people peering into me, poking tools into me.” He knew how I hated that. “This way, it just slips out.”
He sighed. “Right, I hadn’t really thought of that. No, you don’t want a D&C. But still . . . I mean, what if you need some help?”
“They told me how to recognize if there’s too much bleeding.”
“That’s not what I mean—I mean emotionally, for support. Did they even ask if you had someone to be with you?”
They hadn’t. “Maybe they knew from my chart…?” I’d told them my partner would be coming home a little later in the evening, because we’d talked about when exactly I should do it. But that was towards the very end of the appointment, and it was pure chance that my partner had come up in that context.
“Well, what if you were single? What if you were on your own?”
No, they hadn’t asked about that.
Let me be blunt. At another time in my life, I might have aborted a pregnancy at seven weeks and six days or ten weeks or however far along I was. But I wanted Würmchen. I didn’t want to inflict an abortion pill on her, make her come out when she should stay snug inside me.
After dinner, Glenn and I went for our walk. It was a beautiful night, clear, with an almost-full moon, but no one was outside. We walked to Happy Hollow Park, where Glenn saw himself chasing ghosts of children across the grass, pushing ghosts of children on the swing, waiting to catch ghosts of children coming down the slide. We walked to City Park, and I told Würmchen we were right by the river, which was high for that time of year, and flowing fast. Glenn caught me looking up and asked what I was thinking. I told him I’d wanted Würmchen to know about stars and the sky, and I’d wanted Würmchen to be able to feel air on his skin, when it’s cool in the fall. I’d wanted him to know what traffic sounded like from a distance, over the river.
We walked from the river to the statue of the angel for miscarried and stillborn children, which we’d found by chance when we’d walked with Thor. That time, Glenn had been entranced by the coincidence, though I’d found the statue kitschy. This time, he was angry and pounded at the angel’s wing. The metal rang hollowly, loudly.
Last time we had both spoken to Thor as we walked, talking about where we were and what it looked like and how much we loved him. We’d finished each other’s sentences and continued each other’s stories. This time, we were silent. I told Glenn he could talk to Würmchen if he wanted to. “I’m talking to him in my head,” he said. So was I. Two solo acts.
As we headed back, Glenn asked, “Do you want to bury Würmchen in the yard?”
“I thought we could bury him with Thor,” I said.
“OK,” said Glenn. He was silent for a moment. “What should we bury him in? Should we get a little box?”
“We could do that,” I said. “Or maybe just a shroud. A little piece of cloth, a handkerchief or something.”
“Sure,” Glenn said. “That would be fine.”
I thought a moment. “No, I don’t like that. The little gestational sac—I mean, the tissue—it’s so delicate. The handkerchief will be like an abrasive on it. We need something soft, slimy.”
We walked a few more steps, away from the river and past a softball field. “A pear, from the tree. We can hollow it out, lay the gestational sac in it. And then maybe put in some sage from the garden, like we did for Thor.”
Glenn had to process this for a moment. “If that works for you…,” he started slowly. Then he cocked his head. “You know, I like it. There’s something kind of mythical about it.”
“Like a little elf, or a fairy,” I said. “Maybe we should let it float down the river. Isn’t that what little elves do? No more burying babies underground, where there’s no air or sunlight.” I choked and looked back at the river.
“I don’t think the pear will work. It would sink. But we could make a little boat.”
That was unrealistic. “No, let’s stay with the pear. It’s from our yard.” Besides, if we sent Würmchen down the river, she and Thor wouldn’t be together, and I’d already promised both of them they would be.
But it turns out that’s not how it works. I called the clinic the next day, because I realized I had a lot of questions about what would happen. One of them was whether the gestational sac would remain intact. “Probably not,” the resident on call said. “You may notice some clumps of white tissue. But nothing recognizable as a hand or foot or anything like that.” She probably thought I feared finding something recognizable. Actually, that’s what I wanted. “So, those clumps of white tissue—that’ll be the embryo?” I asked. She confirmed.
That evening I came home from work, took the pills, and ate dinner standing at the kitchen counter, shifting my weight from one foot to the other in irritation. Then I pruned some trumpet vines that had needed attention for over a year: I wanted to be outside. But finally it got dark, and I went back inside and put on a movie. Glenn came home a few minutes later. He ate his dinner, we watched the movie, and we waited.
Würmchen went quickly. Mild cramps, the feeling of soft warmth exiting my body, hurrying to the bathroom to check the blackish-red pudding-like substance for the white tissue. No white tissue: clean things up, flush, and wait for the next round. A few times over the course of a couple of hours. And then I realized that it was over. The pudding was turning to regular blood, the bleeding that the nurse had said would be with me for a few days. Würmchen had been somewhere in that thick, clotted blood, but I hadn’t noticed; my untrained eyes hadn’t picked her out. The little bits of Würmchen were now floating through the sewage system, along with the blood that had supported her, and along with the shit, piss, vomit, and tampons disposed of in Iowa City on the night of September 30, one month before the one-year anniversary of Thor’s due date.
Do you think this is too gross, too disgusting? So do I. That’s why I wish someone had told me just to keep everything that came out, because somewhere in there would be Würmchen.
In the end, this is how we buried Würmchen: I had a little doll, perhaps an inch long, attached to the strap of my purse by a safety pin. The work-study student in my office had brought a basket of them back from her trip to Indonesia, where she’d helped after the tsunami. Glenn hadn’t noticed the doll on my purse till Monday, the day I’d decided against a peace-of-mind ultrasound.
We took the little doll, which was about the size Würmchen would have been, and dipped its skirt in some of the blood that came in the aftermath of the miscarriage. At least this was the same blood that had nourished Würmchen. We sliced in half a pear from the tree in our yard, scooped a little bed out of one half, lined it with sage, lay our transubstantiated tsunami doll into the hollow, and put the other half of the pear back on. And we buried it with Thor. We planted white crocuses above Würmchen. Thor has purple scilla. We figure we’ll make a little marker to stick in the ground next to, or maybe in front of, Thor’s headstone. It will say “Würmchen,” and it will have one date on it, just like Thor’s marker does.
The old man didn’t come this year or last to collect the pears. Three summers ago, the last summer we saw him, he looked pretty tottery. He was still wearing the same grimy pants and the same crooked glasses he’d worn the first time I met him. We got very anxious when we came home one day to find our ladder leaning against the tree—he had taken it from the garage to reach some of the pears that were higher up. I pinned a note to the tree saying he was welcome to the pears, but I’d rather he not use the ladder because I worried about him falling.
This autumn we will have the pear tree taken down. No one needs the pears any more; they just attract yellow jackets. And one day, if we leave it, a branch will come down onto the roof of the house, and we’ll wish we’d removed it earlier.
Copyright The Examined Life/Elizabeth Heineman 2011
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