Today, May 4, 2016, is my second child’s due date. But there will be no trip to the hospital. No celebration. Not even eager anticipation of the little one’s late arrival on another day. It’s quite the opposite – my husband and I will anxiously wait for this day to pass because we lost the baby.
Talking publicly about such a personal matter is not therapeutic for me. Actually, I hate it. However, I’m going there anyway for two reasons. 1. Miscarriages are common (up to 25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies). Yet, since it’s rarely discussed, many people feel alone in the tragedy. So, if this has happened to you, I assure you that you are not the only member of this shitty club. 2. My particular experience rocketed me into an already budding and deeper path in my artwork – one that honors the beauty in natural life cycles. Since I anticipate this is going to be consistent theme in my work going forward, I might as well use this misfortune to unpack it.
And with that, here’s what happened:
Months ago, an ultrasound technician told me, as I looked at my little peanut of 14 weeks on the monitor, “I’m so sorry, but there’s no heartbeat.” Suffice it to say I was such a wreck that I couldn’t drive home.
Instead of waiting to miscarry, I opted to have a D and C procedure the next day. The 25 hour period between hearing the terrible news and having the procedure was awful. Really awful. I tried to watch as much mindless television as possible to avoid fixating on the deceased fetus I was still carrying. It felt like holding my breath so as not to breath poison.
The procedure was straightforward and quick. Physically, I felt as good as new in no time. My emotional well-being slowly started to follow suit. I was more grateful than ever for my son, my health, my incredibly supportive partner, and for life in general. Then, I got a call from my doctor. She told me that a test revealed that I had what’s called a partial molar pregnancy. In plain English, my egg had been fertilized by two sperm, and so there were three set of chromosomes (two sets from dad and one from me, versus the healthy scenario of one set from each). This fatal concoction meant the baby and placenta were following a disastrous recipe for development.
Having an explanation was somewhat of a relief, until my doctor told me that in a small percentage of molar pregnancies, tissue left in the uterus will continue to grow and develop into cancer. Think about that – pregnancy can cause cancer. The heartache came rushing back. Fortunately, after months of follow-up tests, it seems I’m in the clear.
In the thick of it, I felt fortunate to have painting as a means of processing what was festering in my mind. On one hand, there’s the pain and unfairness of it. On the other hand, there’s gratitude and trust in nature taking its course. Since my 2015 artist residency at institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I had amassed a pile of natural history books to nurture my new found love for science. Several of them were blissfully perfect at addressing this juxtaposition of destruction and beauty in nature, especially Bernd Heinrich’s Life Everlasting. With that book close at hand, I dragged an old botched painting out of storage and dumped my head and heart over top of it.
One of the first things I noticed about how I was executing this painting was that I loosened up – a huge departure from my usual style of very tight rendering. Once I got my fill of therapeutic “scribbling” on the canvas, I found that the small cluster of hyper-realistic pomegranates and a Magpie stood out even more distinctly on a messy background. It also felt symbolic of my mind coming into focus – from chaos to clarity.
Speaking of symbolism, this painting is oozing with it. I read up on symbolism in nature (on a myriad of topics ranging from Dutch still-life painting to religious texts), and found various interpretations of an egg representing life, resurrection and hope; a snake representing the “corruptibility of human flesh“; pomegranates representing fertility; a single magpie (a scavenger that will steal and eat eggs) representing death and misfortune; white lilies representing purity; tulips representing love.
Painting of a burying #beetle riding the tail of a #snake #skeleton – you know, just another Wednesday in my #studio. #thingsaregettingweirdinhere #ashleycecil A photo posted by Ashley Cecil (@ashleycecil) on
And although I didn’t run across any references specifically to burying beetles, I was compelled to include three of them in my painting. Burying beetles are often described as nature’s undertakers because even one lone beetle can move a rodent carcass to soft soil where it will dig a hole under the deceased for it to fall into. There, underground, the rodent becomes the sustenance for new life. Some may find this repulsive, but without nature’s cleanup crew, circumstances would be far more unpleasant. Being grossed out by decay is probably some form of self-preservation, but I find it to be increasingly captivating and reassuring. Life doesn’t end at death, it starts anew.
Finally, there’s the pattern tile motif in pink. I wanted to continue using pattern in my work, so I designed a stencil in the shape of a seed sprouting into two fully formed blooms on the left and right and a single diseased bud in the center – our chromosomal mess. I didn’t realize until after I finished the painting that I had used the two most stereotypical baby colors to create the pattern.
The evolution of life naturally transforming from one stage to the next can be agonizing and painful, even violent and vicious at times (if the latter piqued your interest, look up “sky burial”). And yet within that there is incredible beauty and tenderness. There’s no grand conclusion to state here, rather a declaration of ease with my fetus with 69 chromosomes, my cancer scare, my husband, and I being part of something that supersedes our individual parts – something I find comfort in. Or better said by Bernd Heinrich in Life Everlasting:
“Just as space-time connects the cosmos, and the molecules that make up our bodies connect us to the past exploding stars, we are connected to the cosmos in the same way we are connected to earth’s biosphere and to each other. Physically we are like the spokes of a wheel to a bicycle, or a carburetor to a car. The metaphor that we are part of the earth ecosystem is not a belief; it is a reality. We are tiny specks in a fabulous system, parts of something grand. We are part of what life has ‘learned’ from its inception on earth and has genetically encoded in DNA that will be passed on until the sun goes out.”