West Virginia almost seems like an accident.
We hadn’t planned on settling in or putting down roots. Bethany followed me there for the first 2 years of medical school with the thought that we’d probably move closer to home for my rotations; but every attempt to leave was thwarted. Two years stretched into three, then four, then six years later we realized there was actually a definite ending to our time in this misunderstood state.
We spent the first couple years in West Virginia as if we were journalists or cultural anthropologists. We walked through life in our little town making quippy mental notes and rushed observations then scurrying back to the safety of my apartment to plan our wedding and to study for school.
I’m not sure when West Virginia actually began to feel like home. After our first year there, Bethany and I got married, and we moved into a shabby little rental home in downtown Lewisburg. As we organized the contents of our cabinets and hung curtains on the windows, we began to let the charm of our little town sneak into our hearts.
I think it was the summer after we got married that we decided to plant a garden in the abandoned flower bed at the base of our chimney on the west side of our house. The fertile soil and the heat brought from the red bricks of our chimney helped produce “state fair quality” tomatoes as our friend Maria described them; (and to us, her word was gospel because she was raised on a Mennonite farm, and how can anyone with those credentials not be an agricultural expert?)
Together with the roots of our squash and tomato plants, we nestled into the soil of West Virginia.
We adapted into the simple rhythms of small town life. The changing seasons were marked by the town festivals. Weekends were made for strolls through downtown, visits to the farmer’s market, and bagels from The Bakery (which needed no other specifying name because for many years it was the only bakery in town). Summers were made for pruning the garden, camping at the lake, and hikes along the river trail.
This two year stint was no longer just a transition.
Within this tiny town nestled in a valley of the Appalachian Mountains, we built our life. Many of the students who move to Lewisburg strictly for medical school make few connections in town outside of the people in their class and the bartenders at one of the two bars in town. However, thanks to our ever extending stay in Lewisburg, we built friendships both with folks connected to the med school and with “the locals.” The sound of a banjo playing was now a sign of a bluegrass concert in town rather than Deliverance. We found a church. We found community.
The Beginning of the End
When I signed a contract with a hospital system in Indiana, the thought of leaving West Virginia seemed surreal. We’d already had so many “last” events in West Virginia (our last Christmas, our last camping trip) all of the other times we’d thought we were leaving that it kind of seemed like we could just move, and we’d be okay.
I signed my contract in September of 2015, so we had almost a full year to say goodbye to this place that had become our home. Now, I’m not good with goodbyes. We’ve had to say many goodbyes over the last seven years as friends from school moved in and out of town, but this time it was actually us leaving. I prefer to just avoid ever saying goodbye, and give the “Oh, of course we’ll see each other again soon” even if all parties involved know that we have no intention of keeping in touch.
As we approached our final week in Lewisburg, a massive flood hit our valley and devastated our little corner of the world. Two days after that, we found out Bethany was pregnant. It was so difficult to balance our joy with the reality that whole towns were obliterated, homes were destroyed, and many lives were lost. It kind of seemed like this natural disaster created a distraction for Bethany and I to sneak out of town unnoticed. I’d promised so many people, “Oh, I’ll stop by and see you before I go.” My departure, however, was the last thing on many people’s minds as they were trying to clean out flooded basements, collect clothes for their suffering family members, and make sense of the tragedy.
Bethany and I had both said to ourselves in the weeks preceding the move that we were ready to just be gone and start our new life. Our hearts were filled with excitement and hope for our new home that we’d purchased and an adventure in a new town. Even in our final drive out of town, we didn’t reserve too much time for sentimental blubbering as we tried to get on the road to keep us from arriving in Indy too late in the night.
I thought that our last glimpse of Lewisburg in my rear view mirror as I pulled onto the interstate was my final goodbye, but I didn’t realize that this was actually just the beginning.
Our first few days in our new home were meant to be so exciting but were actually kind of miserable. The moving company didn’t deliver our belongings until five days after we arrived. We didn’t have a fridge or a couch, and the only furniture to sit on was 2 folding camping chairs—one of which was broken. Catherine was forced to sleep in her pack n play which she’s never enjoyed. She was already in the process of getting sick when we left Lewisburg, and she quickly passed her virus onto Bethany and me.
Bad to Worse
On a Tuesday morning a couple weeks after our move, Bethany woke up and knew something wasn’t right. I prayed so hard, but I knew in my heart that our baby was gone. Through a frenzied series of phone calls with different operators and offices, we finally got an appointment at an OB/GYN’s office.
As we rode the waves of our emotions and prayed for a miracle, I just kept imagining what it would have been like if this had happened back home. The moment things started, it would have taken me one 30 second phone call to get her an appointment with the OB. Our drive to the office would have been 5 minutes instead of 30. There would have been any number of people that could have watched Catherine while we sat through all the pieces of this appointment instead of me pacing the halls with her stuffing raisins in her mouth praying that both she and I could hold our emotions together at least until we got in the car.
It’s difficult to describe the isolation Bethany and I were both experiencing. This was a dark time for us, but there were glimpses of hope and grace even in the midst of our sorrow. While we were in a new city, our friends were still there via text and phone calls showering us in love and prayers. We were initially unsure about whether Bethany would need an operative procedure to help clean out her uterus, but she didn’t. And it’s amazing how welcome a distraction a wild, newly walking one-year-old can be. It’s hard to remember you’re sad when your baby is giving you sloppy wet kisses or trying to jam your keys into electrical outlets.
I was hesitant to even write about the miscarriage because it’s honestly not something that I really want to talk about. Similar to my approach to “goodbyes,” I think that sometimes denial is my favored approach to reality. But this miscarriage happened to us. It’s part of our story. This baby that we lost is just as much a part of our family as Bethany, me, or Catherine; and saying goodbye to our baby seems intrinsically tied with saying goodbye to West Virginia because that’s where our baby experienced its first glimmer of life.
I get nervous that talking about our loss makes it seem like I’m seeking pity or attention, so that’s often why I don’t want to mention it. I’ve known people in the past who seem to sensationalize their losses, and I don’t want to do that. Anywhere from 10-30% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, so our story is not exceptionally special or unique. It’s similar to when a friend has lost one of their parents. It is a reality of life that people die, but that doesn’t negate the loss, despair or horror for those left behind on earth.
While I often don’t want to talk about our loss, I know that it was our friends who had suffered miscarriages in the past that provided us with some of the most comfort during this dark time. If they hadn’t been open about their past, then we never would have had them there to comfort us and empathize with us. Bethany also found a lot of comfort from reading blog posts and stories online of other women who’d gone through this same misery.
Our journey of healing from the loss of our baby and our community in West Virginia, coincided with our search for a church. We’d been actively seeking out a new church family when we moved, but the miscarriage made the search even more desperate. Even though Bethany and I had each other, the absence of our friends and support system back home was heightened.
When we pulled into the parking lot of what is now our new church, I wanted to put the car in reverse and drive back to our house. When I looked at Bethany with tears welling up in her eyes, I knew she felt the same way. All we wanted was to feel safe, and nothing about the exterior of the community center where the church rented space on Sundays screamed, “safe!” Instead it screamed, “Drug deals, rape, death!” The rows of decrepit and decaying houses, rusted and broken down fences, and shady looking characters milling down the sidewalks seemed like more than we were ready to handle. This church looked like a place that was designed to minister to the broken and needy, and I was not in a place where I felt like I could minister.
What a fool I was.
The moment we walked through the doors, we were greeted by smiling faces who wanted to know our names and our story. I realized that this church was most certainly designed to minister to the broken and needy; but they weren’t asking Bethany and me to come in and minister. They had created a safe place where they could minister to us. At the end of the service after communion, I sang the closing hymn with tears in my eyes. This was one of the first times since we’d moved to Indianapolis that I felt safe.
The Long Goodbye
I would be lying to say that I don’t still mourn the loss of our baby and our home in West Virginia, but through time and by the grace of God, healing is coming.
We’re trying to establish new rhythms and routines. We’re finding new restaurants and farmer’s markets. We’ve spent hours painting walls, building furniture, and sorting through boxes until our new house is finally starting to feel like a home. We’re spending time with my sister who was one of the big reasons why we moved here. We’ve joined a small group at our church and are starting to see a new community blossom around us here on the Eastside of Indianapolis.
I don’t know if I’ll ever completely finish saying, “goodbye” to West Virginia, but I think I’m starting to say “hello” to the rest of our lives.