First Place Winner: Cassie’s Pearl

March 20, 2023

By Mackenzie Nicole 


Wine in hand, I stepped into the scalding shower without checking the temperature. The sensation offered a brief reprieve from the ache in my heart. I stumbled on a leftover sliver of a soap bar, sloshing half the wine into the drain. “What a waste,” I mumbled. I chugged the rest in two gulps and plunked the glass onto the floor, where it quickly overflowed with spray.


I leaned against the frigid wall, a stark contrast to my overheated body. My legs caved, and I slid down. Rob was working the night shift at the ER, so I was alone. Again. Even when he was home, I felt his absence. The hours at the hospital seemed to make him immune to the hole in our family. He spent more time in his shop in the garage than he did with me. 


Condolences from well-intentioned friends and strangers seemed to echo against the narrow, slick cubicle where I’d hoped to find momentary solace. 


“Moving on will be easier because you never met your baby.” 


“Miscarriage happens to every woman. It’s not a big deal.” 


“At least you know you can get pregnant.” 


Sometimes the distinction between kindness and cruelty became blurred, and words meant to soothe cut deeply instead. Parents who lose a living child are encouraged to grieve. Parents who lose an unborn child are forced to suffer in silence. My chest spasmed, and I clenched my eyes shut, remembering the day that had given me hope. 




“You really have no preference?” I asked. 


Rob’s calloused hand engulfed mine as the radiology tech readied the ultrasound equipment. “I thought you said we wouldn’t learn the gender for a while.”


“We won’t for another ten or twelve weeks, but still…I’m curious.”


His lips brushed my forehead. “I don’t care whether our baby is a little Rob or a little Cassie. As long as the two of you are healthy, I’ll be the happiest man alive.”


“You promise?”


“I promise.”


The tech approached and squirted cold gel on my abdomen. “Alright, honey. Let’s see how far along you are.”


She maneuvered the equipment over my full bladder, and I couldn’t focus on anything else besides the desire to pee. Don’t dribble. Don’t dribble. Don’t dribble. She’d instructed me to drink lots of water when I came in—she should understand not to press so hard.  


The screen rebooted to display a white dot no bigger than a grain of rice, and the need to relieve myself faded into the background. I was no medical professional, but I sensed I was gazing at my baby for the first time. 


“Cardiac activity is strong and looks like you’re at the eight-week mark.” The tech’s voice vaguely floated through the haze of unconditional love blooming within me. For ten years we’d prayed for a miracle. Test after test had been run. The dozens of procedures had amounted to nothing except disappointment. I believed I’d never have children of my own.


Until now.




I didn’t bother to wipe the tears that mingled with the steam. Two days after the first doctor’s appointment, I had started hemorrhaging. We were on vacation for our eleventh wedding anniversary. To worsen matters, we had called our parents to announce the news earlier that morning. 


I dumped my wine glass and rested it atop my knee. Droplets danced on the surface, pouring over the side and down the stem within seconds. Tip, fill. Tip, fill. Tip, fill. I lost track of time as I repeated the cycle again and again.


My attention wandered to the stain on my popcorn ceiling.


Stop staring at it.


I’d meant to ask Rob to fix it but somehow could not. The discoloration resembled the blotch on the ceiling tiles during my fateful hospital visit. It had become my lifeline as I lay on the examination table and waited to confirm my worst fears.


Stop staring.


The sterile lighting. The labyrinth of identical rooms and hallways. Blood. So much blood. Rob’s shoulders shaking. Pity in the doctor’s eyes when he said, “I’m so sorry.”




The water had long cooled, and icy needles pricked my burned skin. I plugged the drain and adjusted my cramped muscles to lie on my back. Gradually, the water rose to my ears, my cheeks, my nose. Sinking into the abyss of unconsciousness would be so easy. The urge didn’t frighten me. I only emerged for air and shut off the spout because I didn’t want to be discovered naked.


Would I ever experience true relief? Could a day come when I’d forget about our almost-fulfilled dream and breathing wouldn’t hurt?


We didn’t even have a body to bury. Nor a funeral to celebrate our daughter’s life and express our goodbyes. Rob and I had named her Faith that night. None of the others we’d discussed seemed to fit.




Even sleep refused to allow me to rest in oblivion. I thrashed on the sheets, the plague of memories chasing me into an exhaustion I lacked the strength to fight. The idyllic scene that haunted me every night rematerialized, brighter and clearer than before. 


 I rocked on a swing in our backyard with a little girl perched on my lap. 


“Go higher, Mommy!” she squealed. 


When I didn’t pump my legs, she turned to study me, and I glimpsed a reflection of myself in her features. Strawberry-blonde curls and freckles that matched mine. Blue-green eyes that matched Rob’s. Please, don’t let me wake up. Can’t I stay here?


“Why do you look so sad, Mommy?” 


“It’s nothing, sweetheart. Mommy will be okay.” 


Faith cupped her small, dirty hands around my face. “You want a kiss to make it better?”


I swiped at the moisture in the corners of my eyes and smiled weakly. “I would love a kiss, sweet pea.” 


She tugged me down and delicately pecked my cheek. “I think it’s okay to be sad. But I don’t want you to be sad forever.” She gripped my braid, and I didn’t care that she probably caked dirt into the strands. 


I pulled her to me, and she threw her chubby arms around my neck as I nuzzled her sun-warmed hair. “I love you so much, sweet pea.”


She wriggled free and spread her arms wide. “I love you this much!” Her eyes twinkled with excitement. “I know what will make you feel better. We can play tea party!”


Before I could respond, she leapt down. I tried to snatch her back, but she toddled just out of reach, and invisible chains kept me fastened to the swing. No matter how hard I strained, I couldn’t follow her to the table she’d set up for her game of pretend. 




A wail roused me, and I blinked into the nothingness for a second before realizing the noise had come from my own throat. The small clock that illuminated my nightstand displayed 4:27 a.m. Rob wouldn’t be home yet. The shadows surrounding the bed seemed to press in to suffocate me. That could have been my life. Her joy would have overpowered any sorrow.  


“I can’t do this.” My whispers screamed to no one.


I threw off the covers and staggered toward the kitchen, floorboards groaning underneath me. Instinctively, I jerked open the fridge and dragged out the wine bottle I’d uncorked earlier. Without grabbing a glass, I pressed the rim to my lips until I gasped and choked on the last trickle. My hands trembled as I groped for another bottle. 


I swallowed half the contents before pausing to suck in air. God, just make the anguish stop. That was the only coherent thought I could form. 


The hum of the garage door startled me from the madness, and the bottle slipped from my hand. Sharp pain stabbed my foot, sending me crashing to the laminate, where shards nipped my skin. I shrieked. 


The door leading to the kitchen unlocked, and Rob scanned the disaster area, his eyes widening. When he approached, his composure smoothed over to his usual detachedness. He quickly transitioned into his role as an ER nurse. 


I fought to slow my panicked breathing, my face flushing in embarrassment. I rubbed at my bleary, puffy eyes, but my glass-imbedded fingers left scrapes behind. 


Rob knelt in front of me. “Cassie, are you okay?” 


Red smudged my palms. I couldn’t tell whether it was blood or wine. I shook my head as my lips quivered. 


His shoes crunched closer. “I’m going to pick you up, alright?” 


I nodded. He hefted me easily, and faint tinks pelted the floor as dozens of shards fell from my clothes and body. Being nestled in his arms felt awkward. When was the last time we had embraced? Or kissed? I couldn’t remember. 


“Don’t move.” He settled me on the kitchen table and hurried to retrieve the medical kit he always kept handy. He returned with tweezers, gauze, and rubbing alcohol. He sat and gently lifted my damaged foot. “Do you want to share what happened?” 


“I dropped the wine bottle.” My voice wobbled. 


He glanced at the splatters on the tile and my pajamas. His lips quirked upward. “I guessed that. But why were you drinking at 4:30 a.m.?”


I crossed my arms and hid a wince. “Couldn’t sleep.” 


Rob concentrated on methodically plucking each shard from my foot. I twisted my wedding ring around, waiting for him to say something. Anything. He switched feet and continued his ministrations. 


“You’ve lost weight.” His tone was quiet. Unsure. 


My eyebrows furrowed. How do I respond to that? “Umm…thank you?” My attempt at a smile went unnoticed as he examined my legs next. Our inability to conduct a conversation emphasized the chasm between us. 


“Are you still having nightmares?”


I hesitated. Could I call a summer afternoon with my little girl a nightmare? I could when it ended with her there and me here. “I never stopped.” 


His hands stilled, and he made eye contact for the first time. “Does the alcohol help?”


I craned my neck to avoid the concern in his expression. The puddle on the floor taunted me. Its promise of numbness always eluded me.


Rob accepted my silence as an answer and resumed disinfecting my wounds. When he leaned over to dab under my eye, I could distinguish the individual flexes of green and blue in his pupils. “You won’t find healing at the bottom of a barrel,” he muttered. 


Are you judging me? I knocked his hand away, and the wet gauze flopped onto the chair beside him. “Not all of us are unfazed by death and loss.”


He bristled. “Are you suggesting that I am?” 


“Aren’t you? Ever since we left the hospital, you haven’t shed a tear.” 


Instead of arguing, he stood to dispose of the shards he’d removed and rolled the vacuum out of the closet. When I started to rise, he waved me off. I watched him clean up my mess as thoroughly and efficiently as every other task he took on. 


He flipped on the sink faucet to wash off the blood and wine, keeping his back to me as he dried his hands. “I do feel. I feel everything.” He tossed the towel onto the counter and raked a hand through his hair. “I see you hurting and I just—” His voice broke, and I limped over to him. He drew me in and squeezed me tight. “I’m being strong for you because I can’t lose you too.” 


His admission struck a piece of me that I’d refused to let be touched. We had both been grieving in isolation, and it had trapped us beneath a weight we couldn’t carry. I was so tired of pretending everything was fine. 


We held each other for an amount of time I couldn’t measure, except for the sunbeams drifting through the blinds. My body stung with dozens of small lacerations, but listening to his heartbeat and feeling sobs wracking his chest brought me more comfort than I’d expected. Could we reclaim hope for the future and be happy even if we never had children? 


I didn’t know what the next steps were. But maybe I wouldn’t have to search for the path alone. 




Five Months Later


Pale light peeks through the window as morning graces the trees and shakes off evening’s slumber. I push the curtains farther apart and undo the latch. A turtledove’s sweet melody dances through my study as I pop the cap onto my pen, my hands steady and my breathing even.


After the wine incident, I started visiting a therapist. She suggested I journal to help process my emotions. The memories cling, never truly releasing me. I rub my new solitaire pearl necklace between my fingers. The pendant had been part of the June birthstone collection, and the sales associate asked when my birthday was. I couldn’t bring myself to explain the real reason behind our purchase.  


My alarm chimes, alerting me that the time is 6:30 a.m. I switch off the notification, and the date catches my eye: June eleventh. I had wondered how I would feel on the day we were supposed to welcome our baby into the world. The twinge of remembrance is ever present, but the pain of loss has dulled. 


I gingerly trace the curves I’ve etched on the paper, as if brushing my daughter’s hair behind her ears. The words are a treasure and a testament to the journey I continue to brave every day. I gather up all the entries I’ve written over the past week, some warped and smeared with tears. 


On the corner of my desk is an envelope labeled “Faith” in bold letters. I fill its emptiness with all of the folded pages, hesitating briefly before licking the glue and sealing the flap. I don’t suppress the tear that leaks out when I kiss the bulging packet. 


Rob tiptoes through the hallway and out to the backyard. I dress quickly and follow, tucking the envelope in my pocket. The peace that encompassed me moments ago begins to intermingle with anxiety. 


I slide the glass door aside, and the scent of grass damp with dew greets me. Rob props a shovel against the tree where he built a swing after I revealed I was pregnant. “Maybe I’m jumping the gun. But we’ve waited so long!” His eyes had glistened with pride as he showed me his handiwork. 


Now, his shoulders heave again and again. I don’t speak as I slip up behind him and wrap my arms around his torso, allowing my warmth to seep into him. He turns, his face contorted with the same anguish that almost destroyed me. “How can I miss someone so much that I’ve never met?”


“I miss her too.”


The coolness of the morning cloaks us in a cocoon of stillness. After a while, his sobbing eases until his breathing matches the cadence of my own. Our foreheads touch, and I stroke his beard, erasing his tears with the pads of my thumbs. “I’m sorry.” 


He raises his eyebrows. “For what?”


I open my mouth twice before I manage to dislodge a whisper. “I haven’t been there for you the way you’ve been there for me.”


“You have nothing to apologize for.” He cradles the back of my head and presses a kiss to my temple, his voice rough with emotion. “Everyone grieves differently. You purged your soul through journaling. I needed space to think—and create.” 


He holds out a small wooden object that’s dwarfed by his hand. When I reach for it, it makes a clatter that conjures up an image of the nursery at church. “A baby rattle? This is the project you’ve been working on in your shop?”


“You won’t be the only one burying something today.” 


The injustice of the future that would never be—our little girl giggling and fawning over the toy—slices through me afresh. I shrink back, clutching the rattle to my chest. “What if I can’t let her go?” 


Dawn’s glow crests over the fence line. But the pink and orange hues that should be beautiful blind me instead. A pair of turtledoves alight on the branches above and coo, mocking us with their carefree song. 


Rob closes the short distance between us and gently pries the rattle out of my fingers, then withdraws the envelope from my pocket. “I don’t have all the answers. For either of us. But I do know that we will never—” He chokes up, and a full minute passes as he struggles to compose himself. Clearing his throat, he begins again. “I have to believe that letting go of our grief does not mean we forget our baby. I think it means we learn to live again.” 


He bends to retrieve a shoebox and offers it to me. I lift the lid and gasp. Pink baby shoes with ribbons for laces. A gift from my overly excited parents that I’d shoved to the back of a shelf after we returned from the hospital. 


I collapse beside the freshly dug hole at our feet, and moisture soaks through the knees of my jeans. My stomach cramps like I’m losing Faith all over again. I can’t restrain the keening that releases from the most primal part of me. In the past, I would have resorted to a wine bottle. But I’m determined to find healing, even if I must feel everything


I sense Rob’s presence beside me, and I cling to him as I did that night in the hospital. Our weeping doesn’t slow until the sun sits comfortably in the sky. I hiccup, dissipating the heaviness, and we both chuckle softly. 


Rob rights the tipped-over shoebox and arranges the rattle and the envelope inside it. With our hands interlocked, we lower the items into the grave. Rob tosses the first scoop of dirt, and I toss the second. Handful by handful, we refill the hole until a slight mound covers it.


The grime under my fingernails reminds me of the dreams and the small, grubby hands soiling my hair. “I think it’s okay to be sad. But I don’t want you to be sad forever.” 


I will hug my baby one day, but I can’t spend the rest of my life desperate for that moment to arrive. With one final goodbye, I dust off my hands and clasp the pearl necklace. 


I don’t know how many people I will tell about our ceremonial funeral. But for now, I choose to live again. 


Mackenzie Nicole is a graduate student pursuing her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing at Lindenwood University. She has a passion for portraying the grace and healing of God through real-life challenges. When she isn’t working or writing, she can be found traveling or hiking the beautiful Ozark mountains.


  1. Samual Kowal

    Really beautiful and moving.

  2. Jana S

    Well done, Mackenzie. Proud to see the woman you have become. Beautifully written.

  3. Joelle Stone

    Goodness I’m crying so hard… *sniffles* That was beautiful.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Article Categories

Pin It on Pinterest