The next hour was a jumble of calls to our family overseas where it was ungodly early, me stupidly taking the phone as the contractions kept coming; the arrival of our doula’s backup, our antenatal class instructor, Phillippa (Bregitta had badly injured her ankle, in hospital herself in another town). There were nurses coming in and out, instructions issued, vials of blood taken to find out what went wrong, hands checking my cervix, the pain unbearable when I was on my back. They said they should break my membranes, move things along.

I remember the numbing series of aftershocks, hearing someone say to D why they shouldn’t do a c-section, the realization I still had to go through labour and give birth; that the body I was carrying was dead and decaying, that there would be no reward for all this agony. I was simply seeing my own body through a process now, carrying out a foregone conclusion, mechanical and necessary.

I remember I couldn’t cry. The couple of times I tried, the waves of pain rose up and stole all my attention and my energy. There was no room to cry, no time.

I remember ending up in the bathroom under the shower, D directing the warm water on my back and belly, me trying to keep it together as the pain got worse, not being sure how long I could do this. Him there the whole time. I remember how weird it felt to try out the breathing we had learned in our birthing classes, how ill-fitting and pointless it seemed now, wondering why we were doing this when it was already all over, wondering with confusion whether these exercises still applied. I remember asking about an epidural, certain I would need it now, that I couldn’t take hours and hours more of pain like this. The midwife Anneke on the other side of the bathroom door was having none of it – I heard her voice saying that it wasn’t a good idea, that she was against it, that I was managing the pain just fine.

I asked to be alone under the water, squatting there on the plastic stool. There was just pain, white tiles, and the hard stream of hot water on my body.

Then, I had no idea how long later, the pressure, for some reason reaching my hand up and feeling something soft there, her head, coming. Being scared of her body, thinking it was surely falling apart, wondering if it could come out in pieces.

They brought me up on the bed and asked me to push. This was the part I was always feared most, anticipating birth. I was so scared of the pain of another body forcing its way through mine, horrified at the stretching and likely tearing of my most intimate parts. I was so scared of the cutting they sometimes have to do, incredulous to learn they don’t use anesthesia, disbelieving when they said a woman’s nerves are already numbed from the pressure of pushing a baby out so there’s no need. Liars. This part hurt just as much as I thought it would. Though incredibly, in the end there were no tears, no cutting, no stitches; I didn’t believe them at first. It was so strange when the scream escaped me; after, I was embarrassed and apologized. The sound just came as the head crowned – once, twice, three times trying to push through, all those hands and fingers pulling at me and digging, the pain unbelievable. Phillippa telling me to save my breath for pushing instead of screaming and I was so mad at her, angry and incredulous that she didn’t realize I couldn’t help it. D told me later that it was more than three times, several times more.

After each time, I asked if it was over.

Then, finally, it was, almost exactly twelve hours from when I first woke up with the cramps. An insanely short time ago. It all happened so fast.

There was the flash of a small body being carried away in blankets, talk of a hat to cover the swollen head that would be so hard to look at. Them asking if I wanted to see, D saying it’s ok to look, I looked, and it’s ok, his face covered with shock and white and wet. Oh, my beloved.

They brought her beside my bed, wheeling over the hospital bassinet, her infant form wrapped in blankets inside the clear plastic shell. There was a pink knit hospital cap on her head. They asked if wanted to hold her. I said no. I was unsure of how solid a body so long dead would be. I was so afraid she would come apart.

Later, raw and sore and exhausted in that hospital bed, my mom on the phone, I was asked if she was beautiful, my mother’s voice breaking. Our dear friend who came to my bedside after we called her with the news asked it, too. I was confused by the question, then hurt. She’s dead was my internal answer. And she was – very, very dead. I think what happened when I looked at her was true shock – my eyes looked, but I couldn’t take her in. There was blank space, static, my eyes seeing but jamming the transmission. I could only register details, separate facts isolated from one another. Her eyes were fixed open and staring, erasing all euphemisms for stillbirth, cruelly. She couldn’t be said to be sleeping, she couldn’t be described as peaceful. If she was angelic, it was only in an Old Testament kind of way, a face that blinds and burns, its beauty terrible and incomprehensible. The swelling of her head had distorted the features of her face and lividity had largely taken over – shades of purple and red, deep and bright.

I looked at the face of my own child, and I couldn’t recognize her.

I remember a baby’s lips, nose, cheeks. When they picked her up to weigh her, I saw her feet, long and elegant, fall out of the blanket. That was the moment I remember feeling my heart break.

They asked if we wanted pictures, kept asking. We were horrified. It seemed like snapping shots of a corpse for a crime scene, bordering a body with white chalk lines and documenting a nightmare. Like a perverted kind of pretending. I couldn’t pretend. Later, when the numbness of the first few hours wore off, I was so angry that I hadn’t protected her from other people’s eyes. I didn’t want anyone seeing her like that. My daughter.

Later, as the hospital chaplain baptized her body, as we said the first of so many last goodbyes, I finally had the courage to touch her hand, her baby fingers folded into a fist. I touched her cheek, kissed my hand and pressed it gently to her face, again and again. My baby. Then they took her away. It was time.

One of the nurses, so kind and gentle, gave me a pink crib card with my daughter’s name (misspelled, later corrected on a new card), her measurements and birth time. Prints of her hands and feet were on the back. The front, printed part was bordered with drawings of ducks, teddy bears and balloons. It struck me as odd and probably inappropriate, and I wondered if they should issue cards in charcoal grey, the front side bordered by chubby, cartoonish skulls and sickles. A sick laugh sounding somewhere in the buzzing shock of my brain.

The rest of the time in that hospital room we filled with tears. The curtains drawn against the gorgeous weather outside, the door closed, the kind nurses leaving us in peace. Both of us, sobbing. They said we could stay that night and so we did, afraid to go back to our rented apartment. D climbed into the hospital bed with me and we tried to sleep. Every few hours throughout that long night, we woke up to the sound of each other’s crying.

Holding onto each other for dear life, just like every day since.

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