Ghost babies

TLC won’t be changing the name of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, any time soon. But, even without the circus of so many children and a reality show, miscarriage can be heartbreaking.

I’ve gotta be honest with you, she was kind of annoying.

She was short and solidly built with wide shoulders and a boy’s haircut. Were you to stick her in a leotard, you could have mistaken her for Mary Lou Retton–for those of you old enough to grasp such a reference. She was loud, brash, and opinionated. She talked too much. She spilled all of her business to everybody. She had strong personal views and refused to hear ideas that differed from hers.

Her name was Rachel, and she was my next door neighbor.

My new husband and I, our first child comfortably resting in my womb, had just moved to Hawaii so that he could repair helicopters for the Navy at a small base on the very edge of Kauai. I was twenty and hadn’t the first clue how to be a wife, let alone a mother. I was lonely, I was clueless, and, without any friends or family to lean on, I was working without a net.

After only a week or so, Rachel came along. She knocked on the front door of our on-base housing duplex, a plate of Christmas cookies in hand. As I opened the door, she just sort of pushed her way into the house, using the cookie plate as a kind of battering ram. Next thing I knew, she was sitting on my couch, the plate of cookies resting on her knees, introducing herself by telling me her life story. I never got a word in edge-wise, and after what seemed like forever she pushed her way back out saying “Well, I left my daughter home taking a nap, guess I’d better see if she’s up yet.”

There was something about her that just rubbed me the wrong way. I vowed to try to avoid her, fearing that any future interaction would be just as unbearable as the first.

Turned out that was impossible, as our husbands had met at work that same day, and hit it off. That, and their home’s immediate proximity to ours, meant we were destined to spend much time together. And we did. Always while she bullied conversations, using her definite opinions and ability to speak more loudly than anyone I’d ever met.

But Rachel had a secret. And, one night after having a few drinks, she asked me to hold it.

The six of us (by then, the baby that had been comfortably resting in my womb had burst forth, making himself known as my son) were sitting on the beach that served as our back yard (true story, walk out our back door and there was beach), when Rachel said that we should go put warmer clothes on the kids. Ugh, alone time with her was the worst. No conversation buffers. She suggested we put the kids in her daughter’s playpen, because she wanted to show me something in her bedroom.

My first thought was “She’s a lesbian, and she’s in love with me” because, honestly, I’ve seen too many dirty movies and this was exactly how they went down. She told me to sit on the bed and started digging in her closet, while I frantically considered ways to tell her I just wasn’t that into her. She dug a shoebox from way in the back and turned to me, looking grim. I realized that the box did not contain kinky sex toys and lubricants at about the same time that I saw tears in her eyes. She sat on the bed next to me and opened the box.

Inside were two small receiving blankets and two tiny caps, the kind they put on newborns in hospitals. Nestled in with all the softness was a faded Polaroid photograph of a pair of the tiniest babies I’d ever seen.

“These are my babies,” she said.

Rachel told me the story of her twins, which she’d miscarried at five months gestation ten years earlier. She cried as she told me about how excited she’d been to learn that she was pregnant and the heartbreak of learning they were gone. All she had left was in the shoebox.

Then, Rachel’s husband, a taller male version of Rachel herself, burst in the room.

“Hey, what are you guys doing in here?” He saw the box, then said “Jesus, Rachel, not again! Put that thing away!”

She stashed the shoebox back in the closet, quickly, wiped her face, and went on as if nothing had happened. She never mentioned the twins again.

— ∮∮∮ —

Last week Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, they of 19 Kids and Counting (both the fact and the TLC reality show), found out that their 20th child had passed away in utero. At a routine ultrasound appointment, which they expected would reveal the sex of the baby, the doctor was unable to find a heartbeat and it was determined that a miscarriage had occurred.

For those of you who don’t know, assuming you exist, The Duggars are devout Baptists and members of the Quiverfull movement, a Christian group that advocates having as many children as God gives them. They home-school all of their children and say that they live debt-free (I’m sure having a television series doesn’t hurt). They have always said that each child is a blessing and they would never try to avoid having more.

In the story, as reported by, Michelle described what it was like to come home, after learning the sad news:

”I feel like my heart broke telling my children,” says Michelle. “They have all been so excited about this baby and looking forward to April coming around and having a new little one in our arms. That was the most difficult. The Lord is the giver of life and he can choose when that life is ready to go on and be with Him.”

The Duggars’ last child (number 19, named Josie), was born three months early by emergency c-section, weighing in at 1 lb, 6 oz, after Michelle was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a pregnancy-related condition which causes dangerously high blood pressure in the mother. Two years later, she still has significant health problems related to being born so prematurely.

So, like living and breathing, this latest miscarriage (Michelle’s second pregnancy ended in miscarriage as well, putting them right in line with the estimate that 10-25% of clinically-recognized pregnancies–meaning the stick has been peed on–end in miscarriage) has opened the Duggars up to plenty of armchair womb-quarterbacking by people who’ve never met them. After all Michelle is 45, well-beyond a woman’s ideal age for having a healthy child. As the news reported their sorrow, the world’s collective head nodded, knowingly.

But, whether you agree with the Duggars’ religious lifestyle, and reproductive choices or not, I think we can all agree that the loss of a child is a pain we wouldn’t wish on anyone.

— ∮∮∮ —

Rachel and Brian were transferred back to the mainland not long after that night. I felt relieved–in some ways–and hoped for quiet new neighbors, but I also felt sad for Rachel and the ghosts of her babies that she kept in a shoebox.

As for Michelle and Jim Bob, I’m not a godly superbreeder, but I’m lighting a candle for them, their two babies who didn’t make it, and for all the moms who’ve suffered a loss. I’ve seen, first hand, how the pain and emptiness can last for years.

Even if, like Rachel, you’re kind of a boor.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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