The needles used in acupuncture are extraordinarily small, a fraction of a millimeter thick, about the same as a single strand of human hair. They push through the top layer of skin with a sharp pinch, breaking through the boundary of the body with something like an electric charge.
The first time I went to the community acupuncture clinic, it was winter, and I was heavily pregnant with my first child. He was more than a week late, and I was desperate for him to be out in the world, for the birth story I’d been writing and rewriting in my head to finally settle and take shape. I’d been terrified of needles all my life, but at that point I was willing to do almost anything to get things started. I needed to see his face, and to know who I was going to be as his mother. I was so focused on starting labor that I barely remember there being any needles. Four visits over three days, that heavy gray January — and my son arrived.
When I went back, more than two years later, it was the needles I was thinking about. The fear had returned, cold in my bones. This time I wasn’t desperate to give birth. My second pregnancy had never reached that aching overdue point. Here I was anyway, with the idea that acupuncture might help.
The clinic still looked the same — sunflower seed soap in the bathroom, and a roll of real towels that turned with a metal crank. Through the double doors, there were two large quiet treatment rooms with soft lighting, each filled with recliners grouped together in little families of three or four. A quick scan of the room revealed no obvious bellies; it was the first thing I checked for these days. I was not pregnant anymore. And yet: There was no baby. It was only my husband and our two-year old at home, the two-year old whose labor had started here, with these needles. The baby had a body, but her lungs never filled with breath. We held her but never showed her to anyone else. We said goodbye at the hospital and drove home alone.
It was late morning, and most of the chairs were empty. I walked past an older man in biking shorts taking off his shoes, a woman with short black hair lying back in a chair with her eyes closed, the line of her eyeliner visible, needles sticking out of her forehead like the crown of a bird. I looked for a chair that would be wide enough to comfortably fit my hips, but not too soft. I had to sit down in a few before I found the one for me, in the corner near the heater, made of dark brown leather under the blanket, I put my shoes and my purse in a little plastic bin, rolled up the legs of my pants, and lay back in the recliner to wait for my turn with the acupuncturist. Ambient tones played from a speaker on the other side of the room — not music, but nice.
It had been three months since she died, but my belly was still big like I was recently pregnant, swollen in that particular way. Muscles shot, maybe. Maybe stretched beyond repair. It was physical proof that I would never be the same.
Soon the acupuncturist rolled up on his stool and introduced himself as Moses. I told him I was there for help with grief and fertility. Quickly, and with a small smile, I spilled the outlines of my story — lost a baby in June, thirty-six weeks, umbilical cord accident. I shared it light and breezy, the way I had learned to. With this quick spill of the facts what I was really saying was — it’s okay, I’m okay, please talk about her, she existed.
I tell the saddest story of my life with a smile.
I am a woman raised in the United States, in the south, in Texas — the good daughter of a good daughter — and so of course I recognize it as my duty to cheerfully reassure everyone that everything is fine and I’m okay. And while I’m up, can I get you something to drink? My people have been doing this for generations. I smile telling her story because I know it’s breaking the law, to hold her right out there like that, to mention her in polite conversation, without warning, like she was the weather. It’s breaking the law, but my lips won’t allow me to leave her out, so I smile to soften.
“This June?” he said, leaning closer, brow pinched. I said yes. Grateful he could feel the gravity. He nodded and went straight to work. He held my wrists, thumb pressed tight to check my pulse, and then, hands moving like they were playing an instrument, he began pressing tiny needles into my scalp and skin, starting with one right on the top of my head. I closed my eyes and let him. He didn’t explain what each one was for, or tell me how they would fix me, just calmly and confidently went about the business of placing each needle. I let out a few long breaths, felt the quick heat of the needles move down one side of my body, ear, neck, elbow, wrist, knee, toes, toes. Even though I had expected the worst, it didn’t hurt when the needles went in. It only pinched and burned, some more than others.
In the beginning, it was hard to say her name. More accurately, it was hard to see people twitch with discomfort when they heard me say it. Pearl. Even the people who loved me most would probably rather give me a hug and a knowing look, but I needed to hear it out loud, not just in my own head. Named for my grandmother’s hometown of Pearl, Texas, and for the freshwater pearl in my engagement ring. I couldn’t pretend she never existed, couldn’t accept general sympathies of loss, couldn’t let her disappear in the silence — I needed the real words. Baby daughter. I talked about her dark hair, and shared her stats. Six pounds, eleven ounces. Accounting became complicated, innocuous small talk contained landmines. I had two children, not one, despite what it looked like, and I couldn’t go back to the version of me before I was her mother, not even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.
I had two children, not one, despite what it looked like, and I couldn’t go back to the version of me before I was her mother, not even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.
Moses patted my arm to indicate that he was done placing the needles, and carefully laid a blanket over me before sitting back down on the rolling stool and rolling away. I closed my eyes again. There was a big gas heater in one corner of the room, and it kept turning on and off, a loud whoosh each time the gas ignited. At first I was distracted by the needles, all the sharp points where they’d been placed. Then I was distracted by the other people in the room, the small squeaks as they adjusted their clothes or released the footrest, their sniffles, their breath. Someone sat down in the chair across from me, and I peeked to see a tall muscular guy with a big scruffy beard leaning back and lifting up his footrest. The woman with the black bob breathed in and out audibly as if she was in a yoga class. But soon the sharp spots on my body began to grow numb and kind of tingly, and I went further and further into my own consciousness, finally coming to a place where I was almost asleep in a room full of strangers. Lying there, I listened as the heater kicked on with another blast of flame, and I felt calm for the first time in months. Then I began to weep. Without thought, and without concern for the fact that I was technically in public. Silently but openly. Fat hot tears.
There were other people in the room, and I knew they could see me, but still I wept. I didn’t attempt to wipe away the tears. I didn’t make any noise, but it’s not that I held myself back, it’s just that my body was somehow soundless. I felt myself in my body and in the room. I was close to sleep but fully aware of everything. I listened to the soft shuffle of shoes, small coughs, and the crash of the footrests. I felt the needles in my arms. I wouldn’t have been able to reach up to wipe my tears away, even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.
After a lifetime of worrying about making people feel uncomfortable, I let go. In a room made for bodies, there was no choice but to know my own, to recognize the ways it had been broken open and was being put back together again. I was merely mortal, merely making peace with empty space.
Instead of making it harder, the existence of other humans in the room made it easier. They were strangers, but I recognized them — their knit hats, their scruffy beards and bike pants, their rain-frizz and their sighs.
I had cried so much over the last few months that I’d become a connoisseur, and the tears I cried in the acupuncture chair were fat and round and slow, like marbles I could redirect by turning the planes of my face, like in one of those games where you try to land the silver ball in the little plastic basket.
One night, very early on, I was going to bed. As I climbed beneath the covers, an image of a little curly-haired girl in a soccer uniform came to mind, and another wave of grief rose over me. Not just Pearl, the singular creature, but also all the parts of her life that would never come to pass, the sleepovers, the soccer games, the stories big and small. The loss was endless. I was exhausted and so sad. And I wanted a break from it. I remember thinking, “Can’t I just have one good night’s sleep, without thinking about her? Can’t I just fall asleep pretending none of this happened?” As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I was struck by a massive, searing headache, like a cartoon anvil had been dropped on my head. So, no. There will be no pretending. I will not be able to escape my body. There is no place to set this grief down.
The loss was endless. I was exhausted and so sad. And I wanted a break from it. I remember thinking, “Can’t I just have one good night’s sleep, without thinking about her? Can’t I just fall asleep pretending none of this happened?”
Across the street from the acupuncture clinic was a cemetery, and the funeral home where Pearl was cremated, where her body was turned to dust. I had to drive past it to get to my appointments, tombstones flashing behind green privacy strips in the chain link fence. People worry about accidentally reminding someone about a loved one who’s died, but those of us who know can tell you it doesn’t work like that. They’re always with us. People intend their silence to be reverence and respect, when all we want is to hear their name on someone else’s lips. The memory of her physical body is painful, but it also brings me joy. There isn’t one without the other.
I went to the clinic to see Moses every week for months, and I grew to like the quiet, the way the needles opened my body and released the tears, the pinch of pain and numbness. No one ever asked me why I was crying or said a word about it, and I felt better every time I left. Moses knew where to put the needles. I learned how to accept.
My body was the only room Pearl had ever been in, her entire life contained by my flesh and the organs that were designed to keep her safe. Her story never settled and took shape, the way her brother’s had. She would remain weightless and weighty.
Isome stories, I know, she wouldn’t be allowed to exist at all. In some decades I would’ve been shushed to another room, refused the honor of holding my own flesh, told to forget, and to have another as soon as possible. But Pearl existed, all twenty inches from the top of her head to her toes. On her left leg, there was a dark blue bruise that stretched down like a v on her thigh, the place where the umbilical cord had been wrapped. Sometimes I think of her as a circus performer, hanging upside down and twirling gloriously on long bright ropes until she tangles. There is no other ending to this story, no last-minute swerve that makes my family of four whole again. There is only the pinch, the heat, and the path forward, her footsteps in the echoes as we walk.