Just over a week ago, I rocked James before putting him to bed and sang this song to him:
Rock a bye, baby, in the tree top
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all
It’s a horrible song, but it was the one that came to mind the first night I rocked him and he requested it every night after. And just over a week ago, I was the most contented, happy person as I sat and rocked my two sons – the one in my lap and the one in my womb. I sat in wonder as I contemplated the perfection of that moment, the peacefulness of the space, the life flourishing in and around me. It was amazing.
And then, last Tuesday, July 2, everything changed. Here is the disclaimer: this is a story of loss. I’m writing it for me. But I’m putting it here because another story of loss, which I came across on Facebook many months ago, helped me. So, if this can do any good in the world, I’ll put my words where they can be seen, no matter how painful it is.
That Tuesday was pretty typical – meetings in the morning and afternoon, sandwiching a quick lunch break of running errands – picking up the sonogram disk from the appointment on Saturday, buying presents for my sister’s baby shower, and grabbing a quick lunch in a drive through. I picked up James, touched base with my husband, Andy, and started a couple of side dishes for dinner when I got home. With a couple of pots on to boil and James firmly ensconced in front of the TV, I went to the bathroom. And I felt something start to come out that shouldn’t. In shock and amazement I saw and felt something like an exam glove filled with water. I heard the sizzle of things boiling over on the stove as I hurriedly tried to shove this thing – could it be my bag of waters?! – back up where it should go. Then I waddled back into the kitchen to rescue part of dinner, all the time feeling like something was wrong.
When Andy got home, he noticed the smoke in the house. I hadn’t even noticed it. I left dinner to him and went to lay down and call my midwife. They wanted me to come in immediately. I waddled back out to tell Andy and he put dinner down – unplugged, incomplete – grabbed James and off we went. It was surreal. When we got there, I went in, nervously sat on the exam table, since any movement seemed to make things want to fall down again, while Andy occupied James in the next room. The midwife took one look and said we were going to the hospital – yes, that was my bag of waters and it was not where it should be. That was when I started crying.
On the way to the hospital, we called a family friend who was amazing. She met us at the hospital, took James, went by our house to grab the diaper bag and everything else he may have needed for an extended stay, and took him home with her, where she had left in the midst of preparing dinner for her family. Then Andy and I walked into the hospital. It was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. We were planning to go to
the next morning for a weekend filled with baby showers for me and my sister. Arkansas
I knew things were bad because of the speed the team tackled me when I identified myself. I was stripped down bare, put into a gown, and put onto the bed. They started an IV, they inserted a catheter, they ordered a sonogram, they took a blood draw. All of this was strange for a person who is so healthy. Then they turned me upside down, talking around me about wanting to have gravity on our side. This is called the Trendelenburg position. It’s not comfortable, since it puts the weight of your body on parts of your body that were never meant to bear it – shoulders, neck, head. But if it was going to help my baby, by all means.
They did a pelvic exam and the midwife who had received me looked bleak. I remember someone saying that there were fetal parts in the vaginal vault. Good Lord, no! Why was my baby not up where he should be? So the sonogram came and we were all able to see the beautiful strong heartbeat, the movement of his arms and legs, and the fact that my cervix was completely dilated.
By this time, a doctor had arrived, and sat by my head to explain that this was called an incompetent cervix – one that opens of its own accord, with no pain, before it is time. I knew about this condition, I had treated my first pregnancy like a research project and was reviewing my notes through this second one. I had thought it was unkind to call a cervix incompetent, but I hadn’t thought twice about it. Now here I was. If there had even been a bit of the cervix left, they may have been able to sew it up and provide hope for a longer pregnancy and better outcome. But it was a full 10cm. Nothing left to pull together.
We called our parents. Andy’s parents drove through the night to us. My mom flew in in the morning. I sent Andy home around 9 so he could pick up James and put him to bed at home. And all the time I cried. Oh, my poor baby. I felt so sorry for all of us. The doctor had ordered a sleeping pill for me, if I chose to use it. I didn’t – as painful as this all was, I wanted to be in my right mind for it all and I never wanted to hurt my baby through using drugs – even just over the counter stuff.
I left the TV on to keep me company. I had my phone, so I texted with Andy a bit. I fell asleep around 1am. His parents arrived and he came back to the hospital around 3am. I decided we might need a name sooner than we had expected, so I looked online for something. I didn’t want to use any of the names we had been considering – solid, family names – because I didn’t want those names to die with our son. So, I searched by meaning and came up with a list. Andy and I decided on Brennan – a man of sorrow, a tear drop. That is truly what my second son became.
The next morning Andy left to take James to play school. We wanted to keep some things normal. My mom arrived a little after 8am. We cried. My mom grilled the doctors – if I could keep the baby inside me for 48 hours, I would be transferred to another facility that specialized in high-risk pregnancies and premature babies. The doctor said my baby was pre-viable. He explained, but I knew what that meant – he couldn’t survive on his own yet. But if we could make it a few more weeks, the outlook got better. I started to ask questions about quality of life for a baby born that early and we decided to cross that bridge if/when we got there.
So that day passed. I ate a little, I slept a bit, I cried more. I asked Andy to bring James to see me that night. I had told Andy earlier how glad I was we had him – so grateful for this vibrant, smart, wonderful little boy. So James visited me in my room, although in my upside-down position, I couldn’t see him well, couldn’t hold him, and he didn’t really want to come sit with me. I can understand – hospital beds are no fun. Then they left, my mom stayed with me, and another night came. I slept a little bit better than I had the first night. I don’t know why. I think part of me was coming to terms with what was happening. I think maybe I was beginning to get a grip on the inevitable. Especially when I started to wake up with cramps. I had a feeling this was not going to end with a transfer to the other hospital…
The next day was a lot like the one before. Early morning blood draw, almost edible food, kind nurses and doctors that looked at me with compassion and sadness. I knew I was a sad case for them. I couldn’t help but ask them about the other people in the labor and delivery unit – how many babies had been born? How were they doing? I wanted desperately to know that life continued in healthy and beautiful ways around me, even if I was trapped in this pit.
Sometime that morning I felt a bit of fluid. The doctor came to see, but couldn’t tell if my bag of waters and broken or not. Regardless, I felt in my bones that this was the day. A little before noon, I felt the bag of waters slip lower. I told my mom, she called the nurse, and again things flew into double-time around me. I was so calm for some reason – the inevitable had arrived. The doctor examined me and I was right – the bag of waters was coming down and out. Somehow Andy was there and came to stand by my head. Just before noon, I was pushing, without any cue or help from contractions. The worst part of this was knowing I was signing my baby’s death certificate. He slipped from me with the bag of waters intact and I could feel the fluttery movements of his legs against my thighs. He was born breach. I pushed again and felt a pain at the top of my pelvic bone. I reached down with my hand, pushed down, and his head emerged, still in the bag of waters. “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all…”
The first night in the hospital, we had asked the doctor what the baby would look like if he came this early. She had said he would be a fully formed baby, but with very little fat, about the size of a can of Coke. She said that it would be up to us what we wanted to do afterwards – if we wanted to see him, if we wanted to hold him, etc. Andy and I decided we would not want to see him. It would just hurt too much. And I already knew everything I could know about my baby boy from the life he had lived within me.
Even so, when that moment came, as the doctor caught my baby and the nurse reached forward with a blanket to wrap him up – my eyes instinctively sought him out. Andy covered my eyes with his hand. And I broke. I sobbed. In that moment, I should have heard the wonderful cries of a newborn, but instead there was only the sound of mourning. My mom decided at the last moment to see him and followed the nurse from the room.
The doctor looked over my legs to ask if I would want to have the baby baptized. I know this is an essential tenet of salvation in some faiths, but I am confident that God loves all of us, knows us intimately, even before we are born. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jeremiah 1:5a). So I said no because I knew that God was there in the delivery room, weeping with me, and catching my son.
Our second son, Brennan, was born at 12:08pm on Thursday, July 4, 2013. I’m not sure how long hislittle heart continued to beat after he slipped from my body, but I know it probably wasn’t long. The doctors said that a baby at 21 weeks would not feel pain yet, and for that I am grateful. If there is at least one thing I could do for my son, it would be to bear the pain for both of us. And although the bruises from the blood draws are fading and the raw skin of the catheter bandage is healing and I’ve already packed away all the maternity clothes, I know the pain has only just begun.
I feel like a bit of a ghost. Sometimes I’m surprised by the woman in the mirror – her face is pale, her eyes are puffy and pink, her belly is still softly rounded, and her breasts are full of milk for a baby who died.
But this is grief. I knew it before in a professional way. I had experienced it in different, more appropriate ways in the passing of my grandparents. But this is horrible. No parent should lose a child. That is not the way life should go.
I’m going to stop here for the time being. Writing this is good for me, as much as it hurts. And, like I said, if it helps someone else, it will be for something.