April 19th – Part I
It’s beautiful this weekend, warm and sunny, a desperately needed break from the usual Lowland dark and drizzle. A spell of summer in early spring, gorgeous. Just like it was a year ago.
That day – a Saturday – technically began in the night, a bit before 2 a.m. I woke up plagued by digestive pain, the cramps pulling me out of bed and into the bathroom for a spell. Tired of the havoc late pregnancy was causing on my internal organs, sure it was something I shouldn’t have eaten. Desperate through the exhaustion to believe that’s what it was.
I’d been worried all week. I remember sitting at my desk at work the previous Friday, an hour or so after lunch when I realized it – I hadn’t felt any post-lunch kicks. Usually, afternoons were a time the little one would remind me of her presence – a secret conversation we’d have, just the two of us, every midday – before I even knew she was a she.
That day, she was quiet.
And for the rest of the weekend, everything just seemed off. I searched my belly for signs and I felt the sides of it expand and harden. That must be her, stretching out sideways, trying out new positions, rebelling at the shrinking space. I didn’t know what practice contractions felt like.
I remember undressing during that week, sizing up my belly in the mirror, that impossible feeling it had somehow shrunken. I remember getting ready to walk out on some unnecessary errand, my hand on the doorknob, the strong, uncanny sensation of my huge pregnant belly slowly melting away into nothing. The feeling of my child dissolving away, just as she had never been, a figment of my imagination after all these months.
It felt so real, a deep conviction I couldn’t give voice or sense to.
I called the midwives a few times that week, giving into the worry, feeling embarassed for asking. The first time, they said not to worry, that this was the point that movement slowed down. To wait and see and then call again if all still seemed quiet. So my belly expanded and hardened and I wanted to believe it has her, stretching out, moving. I had to. Later in the week, I noticed a new discharge, mucous with a bit of blood. I called again, worried it was my mucous plug loosening, a sure sign of labour starting too soon. The midwives told me that, oh yes, it was certainly too soon, that I probably had a bladder infection or irritation from intercourse. They pointed out I had an appointment the coming Monday and we’d sort it out then. I knew better. But I still said, ok.
There was a woman at work. After sharing a scare earlier in my pregnancy and being baffled and frustrated by Lowland medical culture, she told me her story. About her tragic second pregnancy, how her child died with no explanation at 25 weeks. How such things are handled in the Lowlands. This is a country with a deeply embedded Calvinist culture, hard and stoic. I’d been terrorized already for the entire pregnancy by all the tales of how birth is handled here, how women are denied any pain relief unless they demand it, kicking and screaming, and even then – they’re likely told the anesthesiologist is busy on another floor, at another hospital, or simply not available at that hour. That the home birth model extolled here is for suckers, that the hospitals don’t care what you want. I tried hard to tune out the harpies, I wanted to be open to home birth, and I wanted to avoid drugs and other interventions, to believe this was a place where birth could be beautiful. But her story stayed with me. When she learned her child had died, they sent her home, they told her to wait. That it was better to wait, to let the wisdom of her body dictate what was next. She spent an entire tortured week walking around with her belly full, her baby dead – enduring comments from strangers about glowing, about joy expected. She didn’t know she could demand that they induce labour, that if she insisted loudly enough, they could end the extension of her agony. It was over a week before she finally went into labour and gave birth to her child. She told me this is how they handle these things here.
So knowing that, I was afraid to insist on being seen, to be told the worst and then sent home to wait. I was sure I’d go insane. Instead, I needed to hold onto to any evidence, even invented, for hope. Because it seemed clear there would be no help if the worst had happened. I’d rather be kept in the dark than be kept waiting, knowing.
So for a week, up until that Saturday at 2 am, I waited, in the dark.
But I knew. I knew.
April 19th – Part II
Just before 2 am that Saturday, I went back to bed. Within minutes the pain was back, too. So I got up and headed to the front room so D could sleep in peace, annoyed as hell and resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to rest for awhile.
I made a pot of peppermint tea. I turned the halogen lamp on low – it always made a buzzing sound at that level. I turned on the computer and started watching episode after episode of a favourite comedy series I’d seen a hundred times before – hoping for distraction, hoping to be calmed to sleep, rocking and bending over as the cramps kept coming on.
I still thought it could be intestinal cramps. It was still too early to be contractions. If it was contractions, then something was really wrong, all my fears confirmed.
At one point, on one of my many trips to the toilet, more mucous tinged with blood.
The hours ticked by in 30 minute increments, episode by episode, the pain waking me each time I nodded off, the lamp buzzing out dimmed light in a small circle around me.
Just before 7, in and out of sleep, I finally registered it – the rhythm, the regularity of the pain. D crept out into the front room where I was, his eyes swollen with sleep and worry.
We called the midwives. Anneke, the one on duty, said she’d be over in a hour or so.
D and I sat on the bed, surrounded by our pregnancy books, reading and re-reading the sections detailing the difference between false labour and true labour. We timed the pains and they were only 8 minutes apart.
We moved through regular morning routines, hoping and waiting. We made oatmeal, started a load of laundry. Willing everything to be ok. Me pacing the floor, breathing hard and bending over our bedposts as the cramps kept coming.
When Anneke showed up and checked me, she said I was over 4 cm dilated. I was in labour. Then she got her doppler out to check for the heartbeat. A week of worry, hanging in wait to be waved away or – or not. All we heard was the loud, amplified scratch of the doppler searching my abdomen, my own pulse getting in the way of the silence. There was nothing. She asked when I’d last felt movement, good hard movement. I started to cry. She said maybe my baby was just in a difficult position, that maybe it was still ok. But that it might not be ok. We were all going to the hospital. There would be no home birth now.
D started filling a bag, desperate. A change of clothes for me, toothbrushes, a blanket. I only noticed later, after we were back home and unpacking that he’d also put in the framed picture from our wedding; and our camera. Items to accompany a very different outcome. After, alone in our bedroom, I remember registering those last desperate spikes of hope before, and the cracks in my heart spread and deepened.
As we walked out the door, the oatmeal mostly uneaten and the laundry lying wet in the machine, I remember grabbing his arm and making him promise, promise me that no matter what happened, no matter what, we would be ok. Us. I couldn’t lose him, too. I’d seen what losing a child does to people, his parents. I didn’t want to lose everything. He started crying, too, holding me. He promised.
But I felt that feeling of inevitability, a falling down, the speed only increasing as we went down the steep, narrow staircase and into the bright sun of the street outside and climbed inside Anneke’s small car.
April 19th – Part III
At the hospital, we were given a room, told to wait. As I walked the room, bending forward over furniture with the cramping, Anneke told me I was handling the pain very well. D was on the phone, trying to reach our doula Bregitta, leaving messages.
It seemed like we were waiting forever.
Finally the doctor and nurses arrived wheeling in the ultrasound equipment. I have a habit with horror movies, a strategy to deal with the suspense, the scariest parts: it’s never what’s on the screen that really scares me. It’s the sound. I put my hands over my ears and block out the soundtrack and the screams. Then somehow I can handle the images in front of me, free to look away, safe. They turned on the monitor, covered my belly in cold gel, applied the wand, and I covered my ears over with my hands, hard. Harder than D’s hand on my shoulder. I looked at their faces, not at the screen. They stared for a long while, speaking Lowland sentences I wouldn’t have understood anyway, their faces even and serious. It was so obvious.
Finally they turned from the screen and I saw they were through, and I had to come up for air, I had to hear. I’m sorry. Your baby is dead. The doctor looked at me firmly, holding my gaze with her eyes. I could hear D sobbing, the sound somewhere above me.
She looked back at the screen. She told us that she could see that the head was bloated with fluid, that our child had been dead for some time, probably days. Her appearance would be altered, we might not want to see her; they would let us know, after.
It’s a girl, she said with a kind of downward sigh, not how we imagined that line being delivered. It was so hard to hear that. A girl was who we imagined, dreamed of and named, despite ourselves.
It was so hard to hear it was our girl, gone.
April 19th – Part IV
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.