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11| Shaken

Verna Kale


On August 23, 2011, an earthquake near Mineral, Virginia damaged the Washington Monument, closing it indefinitely. Forty miles from the epicenter I felt the tremors as I was sitting on the OB-GYN’s examination table in a backless gown and sock feet, cold inside and out. I thought at first that the shaking was a truck rolling by outside, but in the five-story brick hospital building the rumbles went on and on.

“Are we having an earthquake?” I asked the doctor. I had held a monopoly on all the fear and uncertainty in the room, but with the walls and floor and ceiling shaking, we were suddenly and equally helpless. “I think we are,” she said. Then she disappeared into the hall. For a few seconds I noted the indignity of dying half-naked in a hospital gown, though, thinking about it now, I guess that’s actually the norm.

We sometimes say of an experience that makes us confront some harsh reality—mortality, loss, truth — “I was shaken.” Forty seconds earlier the doctor had told me that I would need surgery to find out why my body was refusing to let me stay pregnant. Then the plates of the earth’s crust shifted.

When the shaking stopped, I felt neither frightened nor relieved. The mass of tissue inside me was no longer alive, but I was, and at least there’s that. Equilibrium had returned. My world had been rocked and set to rights.

Medical records refer to miscarriage as “spontaneous abortion,” a choice of words so at odds with the intense desire to grow a life that the patient questions whether she’s been given the right file. An early miscarriage is called a “chemical pregnancy,” or, if the pregnancy progressed a bit further, a “blighted ovum.” The former suggests that you were never really pregnant; the latter implies that your body produced a dud, something that should not be. Then they send you home to wait it out, which you do, alone.

Shakespeare’s suggestion that we should Let those whom nature hath not made for store, / Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish stings the woman who has experienced pregnancy loss or infertility. Thank goodness for the turn, which shakes us up and puts things right!

While the beautiful and bounteous re-populate the world with copies of their younger, better selves, there remains another way to outlast this perilous, shifting existence – a way less beholden to the vagaries of Nature’s fickle generosities. A text, too, is a copy of the self - conceived in passion, painfully born, nurtured, and sent out to make its own way in the world. Publish or perish: herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase.

Verna Kale is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Rhetoric at Hampden-Sydney College. Her teaching and research interests include American literature, life writing, and gender studies, and she is currently at work on a biography of Ernest Hemingway.

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