Our story has two parts—a death, and a birth.
Before that, there was life. So much life. 34.5 weeks of life. 243 days of life. Cell division, implantation, the miracle of a baby taking shape from near nothingness. Our own lives reinvigorated, reinvented, our energy pulled inward to grow our family, ready ourselves, nest.
34.5 weeks of life in my womb. I took it for granted. Even as I marveled at the tiny working organs, the finger buds that became fingers, the eyespots that turned into seeing eyes. I thought our baby’s life was a done deal. I thought our life together—the three of us: me, A, Baby—was just beginning.
* * * *
Our baby died on Christmas day.
I had been anxious for days. Our baby hadn’t been moving as much lately. Our baby wasn’t excited by Christmas treats, or big holiday meals. It’s hunker-down time, we told ourselves. Our baby’s getting too big to move around so much. Hibernation time, everyone said.
In retrospect, it is easy to see my anxiety as what it was—a mother’s intuition. But I cannot claim it as such, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know my baby was dying.
Christmas morning was the last time I felt our baby move. My niece jumped around, tore wrapping paper off of her gifts and ours. My sister had me lie on the floor to try and feel for the baby’s head, to see if our baby was breech like I’d been thinking for months. I couldn’t reconcile the way I’d feel him move—pushing out a limb under my right ribs, thunking under my left—with any position other than lying in a hammock. I watched carefully at prenatal yoga to see the exercises to help turn a transverse or breech baby, just in case I’d need them in a few more weeks. In case he liked his hammock and didn’t want to come out head-first.
I say he, but at the time we didn’t know it was a he. We just said our baby, or Baby.
I sat on the couch at my sister’s house, next to A, next to our baby niece and a line of dolls the older niece had set up along the couch. I felt a slow poke by my rib. A shift of position and another slow poke in my mid-belly.
Now, this is my saddest memory. Our baby’s goodbye. I cry out inside every time the memory surfaces. No, wait! I love you! Don’t go!
In the evening, my anxiety at a head, my family forced me to call the midwife on call back home. I followed her instructions, ate a big dinner and went to my parents’ guest room with A to lie down for a kick count. Give it an hour, the midwife said. If Baby moves four or five times, that’s good, we’d rather ten, but four or five would be good.
The longest hour of my life.
First, my left side. I hugged my body pillow. My nest, we’d called it. It prevented snuggling but made sleep possible. I kept my eyes open, blinked at A, at the curtained window, the dim light of the bedside lamp. Thirty minutes. I turned to my left side. A put her arm around me. I stared at the wall. We watched a house spider up at the ceiling. Thirty more minutes. Not one single kick. No flutter, no slow poke. Nothing.
We got up, put on our coats, and drove to the hospital, my parents two minutes behind. I knew where the hospital was because it’s the one my sister gave birth in twice. The first time, I’d been there when she pushed my niece into the world and my brother-in-law caught her. The second time, I’d been pregnant, too, and too tired to hop in the car in the late evening and drive three hours. I’d missed my second niece’s birth by a few hours, but I was there the next morning.
At the hospital, they put me in a wheelchair and whisked me up to labor and delivery. I started to feel better. Silly, sitting in a wheelchair when I could walk perfectly fine. Probably nothing was wrong. This would be an expensive ER visit to pacify my silly anxiety.
They admitted me right away and put us in a room with a curtain.
“Everything’s going to be okay, right?” I asked A, squeezing her hand.
She hesitated. “I hope so.”
Our worst case scenario was that our baby was sick, that something was wrong and they’d have to get him out right away. They can have that baby out in four minutes if it’s a true emergency, my prenatal yoga teacher had said. I squeezed A’s hand again, hoping there wouldn’t be an emergency c-section.
The nurse squirted jelly on my stomach and got out the Doppler. She pressed in hard, looking for our baby’s heartbeat. She tried every angle. My belly ached from her searching. But she could only find my heartbeat. Finally she called in an ultrasound machine and sonographer. I could hear my heartbeat getting faster, but still I thought everything would be okay. I was a little excited—we’d get to see our baby again. It had been 14 weeks since we’d had an ultrasound.
He looked small on the screen. I remember thinking how small he was, like he was hiding against one side of my womb. Not big enough to run out of room in there, not big enough to hunker down or hibernate. They pressed the wand around and around my belly, trying to get at a good angle to see our baby’s heart. A doctor came in and took over the wand. I could hear my heartbeat getting faster.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, “but I just can’t find this baby’s heartbeat.”
Other saddest memories:
The sound of my voice, a deep echoing scream.
A’s face, stricken.
Our baby’s heart, a still, black spot on the ultrasound screen. A black hole that burns in my memory bright and cold.
* * * *
The second part of our story is shorter. Shorter in narrative if not in time. Most of it was waiting. Waiting until the next day to drive home. Waiting to be admitted to Women’s Hospital. Waiting for blood work, IV port, test results. Waiting to be induced, then waiting while the cervical ripeners went to work. Some of the waiting was sleeping. Some of it was crying. Some of it was watching episodes of Downton Abbey and Doc Martin on our laptop.
My parents and my sister had come from Asheville. A’s parents had driven up from Atlanta. My sister was texting my best friend off and on. A’s brother and his wife were on the phone. Our donor’s family was on the phone. Our doula was waiting for the call that active labor had started. Friends and family at a distance were praying and crying. I know our baby was loved by so many more than just me and A. I know we are loved by so many. And knowing that breaks my heart even more. All that love, waiting for our baby. All that love, ready to welcome him into our lives.
The hospital was good to us. I know that is not everyone’s experience, so it feels important to say. Both hospitals. The doctors caring. The nurses gentle. The midwives compassionate. They let all of our various family members come in and out of the room, its door marked by a white rose. Their code, so that no medical staff would misstep, congratulate us, bruise our already weary hearts.
The waiting was so long, but labor was so short. 2 hours. Shh, don’t tell anyone that, I can imagine my sister saying, if the birth had been normal, if our baby had lived. You don’t want anyone to be jealous.
But those are words left unsaid, like so many others. Like congratulations.
I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with contractions. A timed them for a while, then called in the nurse again, texted our doula, called my sister. I was four centimeters dilated. I asked for an epidural. I cried when the epidural was put in, not from the pain, but because I hadn’t wanted an epidural. I hadn’t wanted this. Our baby wasn’t supposed to die. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, I kept crying over and over.
This is the part that I don’t remember as well. This is the part that’s fading, a dream I once had. I rested a little. Soon I could feel the contractions again, only on my left side. I felt pressure. They checked me again, perhaps casually, not expecting much, then, surprised, Yup, that’s the baby’s head! Push!
My sister and our doula had barely made it there. A says she climbed in the hospital bed with me and held me. I don’t remember this, but I like that image. Me lying on my side, screaming and crying, her holding me, helping.
My left side was on fire. I pushed only a few times. I remember three. I felt it all come out on the last push—our baby, his cord, the placenta. My body, letting go in one breath.
Stillborn is still born. Our first child, our son, Joseph was born at 6:25am on December 27, 2012, at exactly 35 weeks. He was 3 lbs 9 oz and 19 inches long.
* * * *
Of course, this is not the end of the story. Just as there was life before, there is life after. Life without Joseph. We’re still learning what that means, and who we are now. The writing and art on this blog is about our journey through the landscape of grief.