This Is Not a Story About a Ghost


This is not a story about a ghost. This is a story about a gas bubble, a molecular twang, a memory.


In the weeks after my cat died, I sometimes still felt her jumping on the bed near my feet, just as I was falling asleep. The mattress would dip down, the sheet would stretch tight across my calf, and I’d wait for her to climb onto my anklebone, to circle and then settle her soft little body down in a curl around my foot. Because it happened as I was falling asleep, it was a quick flash of consciousness—Bleu was there on the bed, somehow, and then I was asleep.

It wasn’t until I woke up later that I remembered and thought of her. I didn’t know what her visit was supposed to mean, but it soothed me. I was sad that she’d died, but I was already so overcome with grief I could barely feel the additional sorrow. Her death came just days after my husband Nathan and I learned that our daughter Pearl had died of an umbilical cord accident, and so the loss of my beloved cat, my constant companion since I was twenty, ended up feeling like something had slipped away underwater, nearly an afterthought.

In the weeks after Pearl died, I could sometimes still feel her kicking inside of my still-swollen belly. The pamphlets from the hospital warned me that I might experience these phantom kicks. Apparently it wasn’t an uncommon sensation, but those of us who weren’t busy nursing and changing diapers and staggering across the hallway in the middle of the night felt these kicks more acutely: we had a laser-like focus on our hollow bodies, so recently bursting with life.


The body remembers. The bed remembers. The house remembers, even the stairs, which have felt the weight of my body change over the last eight months. The toilet remembers, sitting cold all night long, as the moon stretches from one side of the night sky to the other. It wonders where I am, why I’m not trudging in the dark across the hallway, to sit down, the warm circle of my ass against the cold seat.


I was lying on my bed, on my side, staring out the window. I’d slept the whole night through without waking once. That was only possible because my baby had died. My baby died, my baby died. I couldn’t use any of the soft little euphemisms that were supposed to make everyone feel better. I couldn’t say I lost her. I couldn’t say she passed. My Baby. Died. I couldn’t say those other things because we had a bright and beautiful two-and-a-half year old son, Solomon. Those soft little euphemisms were terribly confusing, making him think Nathan had died when I grumbled about how we’d lost Daddy at the furniture store. So, we didn’t lose Pearl. She didn’t go to sleep and not wake up.

I was lying alone in my bed upstairs when I felt the first muffled thump from inside of me. Just one thump, but I knew right away that it was her and also not her.

Was it a malfunction of my brain, or a malfunction of my internal organs? The literature hadn’t explained that. Which one was misfiring and making me feel like she was still inside of me, still alive? I pushed my hand against the flesh of my belly. It seemed there was nothing there, like everything had been scooped out, gutted. Before this happened, I didn’t know what “gutted” meant. Gutted was only for fish, lying in the hot sun, being prepared for their place on the grill. Somewhere there was a white plastic bucket for the guts.


It was her and also not her. This was a memory of her, in one of the only places she’d been able to lay down memories. This little one-beat thump. She used to dance as I’d lie in bed with her big brother, singing “Hush Little Baby” with his arms wrapped around my neck. She’d be dancing and swimming in my belly, her big brother snuggled right up against me, curled next to her, both of us feeling her dance between us.

At thirty-four, lying there with both of my children, I had no idea how rare such moments would be. I heard a cupboard door slam. Sound carried in this 127-year-old house. I thought of all the people who’d lived here, the ones who must’ve died here, some cocooned inside the bellies of their mothers, some bleeding out onto the hardwood floor, some slipping away quietly in their sleep. I wondered how many there might have been, over 127 years. Pearl wasn’t the first to have lived or died, she was just the first of mine.

Because the literature had warned me, I wasn’t alarmed. I felt like I was supposed to accept these phantom kicks for what they were, just another step in the grieving process. Her, but not her. Not like she’d actually returned. A quick knock with no follow-up wriggle or flip. Hot tears flashed in my eyes and I blinked furiously to hold them back. I was the only one who could feel her, and she wasn’t actually here anymore, and I knew it.


This is not a story about a ghost. This is a story about uterine walls shrinking back into place, about tiny twitches on a cellular level.


I believed in the certainty of Pearl’s death since the moment the on-call doctor leaned toward me, past the ultrasound machine, with a mournful look on her face and said, “I am so sorry.” Each word was fully punctuated. There were never any doubts after that, not for me. The doctor and I locked eyes and I understood. I did not hold on to any sliver of hope that this was all just a big mistake. I had the answer to the silence I’d felt, that hidden little worry that tugged at the back of my brain. At my request, the doctor turned the monitor toward me, and I saw the empty space in Pearl’s chest, which I knew wasn’t actually empty, just no longer filled with the pitter patter of ultrasonic waves.


The bathroom in the hospital room had a broken light, a big ugly fluorescent box on the ceiling above the toilet that flickered on and off like a bug-zapper, like a horror movie. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Just like Pearl’s life, a mere flicker. The flickering felt like poetry. For the first time in my life, I wished I were a poet. Who needed a story when a single word said everything.

I took a shower so I could think. I was supposed to decide whether I wanted to go through labor and deliver the baby vaginally, or ask for a C-section. The on-call doctor was willing to do a C-section that night if I insisted, although it wasn’t what she recommended. She warned me that a vaginal delivery was the best way to ensure the safety of future pregnancies and deliveries, and as she said it I stared at her curly brown hair, so much like mine. This woman who could pass for my sister, what did she know? Why would she say this? What future deliveries? I wanted to laugh and scream. I could never go through this again, never. I would always be a mother of two, one living and one dead, like a tragicomedy mask.

I showered and let the water stream over me as the light above me flickered. It was so ugly. Whatever rays of the spectrum were left in this light, they were shit. While I stood in the shower, I tried not to think too much about Pearl’s body inside me. I tried just to focus on what needed to happen next. They wouldn’t make me wait to go into labor naturally. I was thirty-six weeks pregnant. They’d give me medicine to induce labor because my body didn’t seem to know yet that the baby had died. Otherwise, I could walk around for days, even weeks, waiting. People would beam at me, “Oh, look at you, you’re glowing. When are you due?”

The hot water felt good on my back, and I was grateful that they let the hot water get that hot. Hot was what I needed.

I decided to wait the night, and a nurse with long brown hair brought me sleeping pills. She might’ve been the same one who nervously asked me earlier if she should go ahead and move the bassinet from the room. The first dose she gave me wasn’t enough, so I had to buzz the buzzer and ask her to give me more. Sleep was what I needed. The nurse seemed hesitant, and I raised my eyebrows sharply, furious and pleading. Thank God she didn’t make me say it. It only took the look, finally, to snap her out of normal protocol, and she gave me enough to put me to sleep.


This is not a story about a ghost. This is a story about memory. About neurons misfiring, about the strange space between dream and awake, that feeling, when I’m falling asleep, of falling backwards, swinging my arms up to catch myself.


Pearl weighed six pounds, eleven ounces. She was twenty inches long.


For the second time in my life, I experienced that moment when a mother first lays eyes upon her child. As the clouds parted and the rest of the room fell away, there was that strong sense of recognition: It’s you! This time I didn’t know what to expect, but I discovered that the surge of joy and love, the leaping of my maternal heart, didn’t lessen because the baby was dead. When I saw my daughter’s face, all I could see was how beautiful she was, dark hair just as I’d dreamed she’d have, and the perfect swirl of her ears.


I occupy a strange place between living and dead. I’m a living human being, but there’s been death inside my body—not just metaphorical death, or the death of cells, or the death of a concept, like willpower, but actual physical death, flat black death, fatality. I am healthy and whole. Someone died inside my skin, but it wasn’t me.


The day I left Pearl at the hospital, the last day I would ever see her face, I came home to find Bleu in the laundry room, hiding underneath the rack of pants, meowing. She sat curled with her paws beneath her, purring but stiff. When I pet her, she didn’t stretch out or relax her body at all. She just stayed curled up with her paws clenched beneath her. She arched her back and purred louder, but didn’t get up. Her backbone felt sharp and ragged, like there was no muscle or fat, just the fur hanging off her. I had noticed over the last few months that she’d been drinking less water than before, but I hadn’t given it much attention.


I filled her bowl with fresh water and brought it to the laundry room, where I sat down beside her on the carpet. I held it under her mouth and she turned away. I dipped my fingers in the water and held them to her pursed lips. Finally she licked once, twice, and then she turned her head and tucked her face into my palm. I’d been too busy getting ready for the baby to notice her failing health, but now here we were. Baby dead and cat dying. It was like she’d aged ten years in the day that I was in the hospital and I knew there was no turning back. Her fur had lost its luster and her eyes were glassy. She didn’t move from her spot. This was the kidney disease we’d known about for a while, come to claim her.


My milk came in, and every drop destroyed me: I’d never nurse my daughter.

I wore a tight bra stuffed with ice-cold cabbage leaves, and drank sage tea. I found a website with specific instructions on how to stop lactation when there was no baby, along with stories full of heartbreak and strength, about people like me. I wrapped ace bandages around my tight bra to make it even tighter, and when I got undressed to get into the shower my giant sore breasts were covered with deep red marks where the cabbage leaves left imprints. I couldn’t stop the milk from flowing in the shower, so I stood there and watched it mix with the water in the bottom of the tub.

One afternoon, about a week postpartum, I took all of the towels in the house and piled them up to build a fortress on my bed. I was going to have a massage, and I was going to need something to soak up the milk. My massage therapist was also a trained midwife, and a neighbor, and she came to my house with her oils and lotions and a small gift bag. Although she’d never worked with me as a midwife, and I felt strange asking, when she arrived I asked her if she could please check my uterus. I was scheduled to see my doctor for a follow-up soon, but my uterus felt so hard, low against my pubic bone, and I wanted to be sure it was okay. I wanted a professional to reassure me. She pressed her hands against my belly and looked up at the ceiling. She said everything felt just right, and then she told me to go ahead and get undressed and comfortable, she’d be back in a few minutes. I climbed up onto the bed, and onto the towels, and when she finally put her hands on me, I stopped worrying about crying or spilling milk. I knew it was safe to do both in front of her.

Once, we’d gotten together for wine at the bar between our houses, and she told me a story about a birth she’d recently attended, a young Catholic couple whose first son was mysteriously stillborn at full term. At the time, I was a new mother to my son and it was a hard story to hear. She told me that the young father had been amazing, full of courage and love. He’d said, “Bless this child, our first son, for guiding his brothers and sisters. He will be the first of our many children.” It was nearly as beautiful as it was sad: so much hope and faith in the middle of such cruel loss. At the time, I thought there was no way I could possibly survive something like that. But now, as I had the massage, I remembered the love from that story, how it filled the room, and in that moment, when I needed it the most, I held the feeling close. After gutting there could be love. All of the emptiness inside of me could be filled back up again. I thought of Kahlil Gibran and the cup that was burned in the potter’s oven, of all that empty space being filled back up with love. I knew that love wouldn’t bring my daughter back, but it could honor her memory.



On Bleu’s last day, I stayed upstairs, where I could lie down in the laundry room with her and remember our adventures. She lifted her head so I could scratch her neck, and I spoke to her of glory days—of the bothersome mice she’d brought to justice, of lying curled on the sofa in a spot of sun, of late-night dinner parties where she would move from lap to lap as she liked. We’d had a great life together, especially during the years we’d lived in an apartment above a bar, all those hours spent together on the stoop.

Here now in the house where I was a wife and mother, flowers in various vases covered the kitchen counters and the island. Sympathy cards were propped open everywhere. There was a stack of foreign Tupperware next to the sink, ready to be returned. I didn’t come downstairs when the team from the vet’s office arrived, but I heard Nathan let them in the front door, and I thought about the scene they were passing through. They must have thought we really loved our cat, and that our friends were very kind.

We all gathered on the floor of the laundry room. The vet gave Bleu a sedative first, and that pretty nearly knocked her out. Nathan and I kept petting her. Bleu was such a pretty cat, with her long brown and black fur, white neck and nose, so regal and silky at the height of her glory. She was my first girl. We kept petting her, and I couldn’t believe this was happening, but I was so glad that it was Nathan sitting there next to me on the floor of the laundry room. After the vet gave her the second shot, she went quickly and peacefully. Her body didn’t twitch or gasp—she just grew still and her purring gently stopped.

We wept, more for Pearl than for Bleu.

As the vet was packing up her bag, she rested her hand on my shoulder and said, “You did the right thing. She was ready. She was so dehydrated—it was really difficult to even get the needle in.”

I knew these words were supposed to make me feel better, but instead I felt terrible that I hadn’t called them sooner.

The vet offered to make a plaster cast of Bleu’s paw. “A lot of our clients find it comforting to have a physical reminder of their loved one,” she said, “to remember what her paws looked like.”

I smiled. We’d gotten a plaster cast of Pearl’s hand, which was right now sitting in a walnut box on the floor near my bed, her perfect little fingers curled as I had curled them around my thumb the last time I held her. I thought of getting a little glass case where I could display them together.

“No, thanks” I smiled. “I’m good. I don’t need one of those.” I started to say thank you again but then I had to clap my hand over my mouth as I doubled over, choking out laughter. The vet rubbed her hand on my back with such warmth that I knew she thought I was weeping again for Bleu, which made me laugh harder, shoulders shaking, and then my tears were streaming through my fingers and I thought, oh god, so I am, I’m crying again.


One evening, ten days after Pearl’s death, with a small box and shovel, Nathan and I buried Bleu’s body in the front yard after Solomon was in bed. It was dusk on a summer night, the warm air just starting to chill, the sun going sideways and growing orange. Our front yard was filled with river rocks, so we had to push them back from the front corner before we could even reach the dirt. We lived on a busy street, and there was a decent amount of traffic, people going on about their lives, coming home from work or heading out for dinner. We could smell barbecue from across the street. As Nathan dug, I walked along the railroad ties thinking of our friends who lived around the corner, wondering whether they’d drive by. If they did, they’d think we were burying our baby in the front yard. It was hard to imagine a more awkward conversation, but it felt good to laugh as porch lights began to flicker on and we filled the hole back up with dirt.


Scientists have recently discovered that fetal cells remain in the mother’s body for the rest of her life. This news signifies the confirmation of something every mother has always known: no matter what happens or how far our child travels, she remains with us always. These fetal cells travel the bloodstream and are believed to be beneficial in fighting specific genetic disorders. The body remembers.


The tree we planted in Pearl’s honor remembers: its little white flowers bloom every year on my birthday, and its small red cherries ripen in time for Pearl’s in early June. Every year I get a little older, and every year the memory of her gets a little bit older, always thirty-four years between us but the distance growing. Still, the soil underneath the tree remembers, soil we dug in ceremony, soil over which I read a poem in a circle of my beloved friends, into which we tossed little freshwater pearls. I have an invisible daughter, but somehow she continues to exist, like stars in the sky which have long since burnt out, but whose light continues to reach us.


The sun remembers, the sky remembers, the birds who fly past at the same time every year remember, measuring our shadows and counting curly heads as they fly over our house. That day we planted the tree, I wore a purple dress and I was pregnant. I didn’t know yet that they were twins, Pearl’s and Solomon’s little brother and sister, little seedlings in my belly. They remember, too. This story that’s part of their story was imprinted on them from the start, from back when they were all behind the moon together, picking beans.


Rumpus original art by Jonathan Michael.

Mary Milstead is a writer in Portland, Oregon. She completed her MFA in Fiction at Portland State University in 2014, where she won the Tom Doulis Graduate Fiction Writing Award in 2013. She’s currently at work on a novel that’s set in Spain just a few years after the Spanish Civil War, a collection of weird little animal stories, and several new essays. Her website is More from this author →