“Can I feel him kick?”
My mother uttered those 5 words to me late on January 4, 2011, shortly after we finished a dinner at the end of yet another day when I had not managed to go into labor. Granted, my son wasn’t due until the following day, but that didn’t stop me every second from wondering why it couldn’t just HAPPEN already. I was so done with being pregnant. I was ready. My son’s room was ready. My mother had been camped out in my house for weeks so that she could be ready. We. Were. Ready.
His pregnancy had been fairly uneventful. I got pregnant the very first month we stopped actively preventing such an occurrence. His heartbeat was strong. His screening for potential disabilities was textbook perfection. My health was fine too. No prenatal diabetes. No poor blood tests. It wasn’t until a month before his due date that anything remotely out of the ordinary occurred. That was the point at which my blood pressure went up a bit. The doctor told me it was still in the normal range, but it was higher than my previous so they wanted to monitor a little more closely. Mostly this meant I got to spend 24 hours of my life collecting all of my pee into an orange jug that I then drove across town. Medical science is really weird.
The pee episode combined with the slightly elevated blood pressure earned me a “not exactly pre-eclampsia but we want to see you twice a week” diagnosis. I still hadn’t officially crossed any threshold of danger, but the baby and I were on notice that we were being watched.
On the morning of January 3, 2011 I went in for my bi-weekly uneventful non-stress test (fancy name for being strapped to a baby heart monitor and a blood pressure machine for 20 minutes). I was informed at that test that the baby and I were both doing so well the doc didn’t see a reason to see me more than once a week. I informed the nurse, as I had at all of these tests since hitting the week 37 “full-term” point that she would not be seeing me again because I was damn well giving birth to this baby before then. She just smiled at me, confirmed that baby’s heart was still completely normal, and scheduled an appointment for the following week.
The rest of January 3 passed by. No baby.
I went to bed, slept terribly, woke up the next day. No baby.
I lumbered around like a grumpy whale for another whole day. No baby.
Once you get to the point in pregnancy when you can consistently feel your child pummeling your insides you are instructed to, once a day, count the number of kicks you feel. You are supposed to get to 10 kicks/movements within 2 hours. Less than that and it could indicate a problem with the baby. I had faithfully done kick counts every day like the good little patient that I am. It was hardly arduous; my son never took longer than 10 minutes to complete this exercise and usually he was done within 5. My ribs must have been black and blue but when you’re that pregnant it’s pretty hard to distinguish a single source of discomfort; it blurs together into one enormous crushed sensation.
My habit was to do the kick counts after dinner. Food made my already active baby even more spastic. So when Mom asked if she could feel him I told her of course and she could expect to wait approximately a millisecond from when he woke up. I settled into the livingroom armchair and she sat down on the sofa and I waited for the first jab. And waited. And..Oh!..oh nevermind, just a fake contraction…and…waited….
They say you should give it 2 hours for 10 kicks. Babies sleep and wake in utero just like they do once they are on the other side, so if the baby is sleeping you might not feel him/her move for a bit. It’s nothing alarming. Also babies can sometimes “settle” right before birth, not to mention sink so low in your pelvis you feel like you’re walking with a bowling ball between your knees, which makes it hard to feel them.
I made it an hour and a half without feeling anything before I couldn’t stand it any longer and called the hospital. I was instructed to come on in but not to worry overly. This kind of thing happens all the time.
An hour later I was in the Labor & Delivery triage room looking at my son on the ultrasound. Specifically looking at his heart. His heart that wasn’t beating. And although I was staring directly at it, and I knew that it was his heart I was seeing and that it wasn’t beating, I still didn’t understand. Even when the doctor said she was sorry and my son was dead I still didn’t understand. In fact the very first words out of my mouth were, “I don’t understand.” Because the day before he was perfect and healthy and ready to be born and now he was dead and how could that happen? How could a baby just die? Nothing had happened. But there was his heart and it wasn’t beating and my baby boy was gone.
Stillbirth sounds like the kind of tragedy you read about in Victorian novels. Although there is some peripheral cultural knowledge that rarely birth complications will cause the death of Mom or baby, in our modern society we mostly have the luxury of treating every pregnancy that makes it past the first trimester as a guaranteed result. So much is this the case that many people, previously myself included, no longer believe stillbirth happens outside of third world countries. In reality stillbirth occurs in 1 in 160 pregnancies. If you get to week 20 of an otherwise normal pregnancy your odds of your child dying are .6%. It sounds low. So low it seems like it’s the same as 0%. But .6 isn’t 0 and the difference between those numbers is the difference between a guaranteed baby and a potential heartbreak.
The cruelty of stillbirth is that after you find out your baby has died you are still 9 months pregnant. There is still a, in my case, 7lb 15oz baby inside you who has to come out. They don’t just dissolve. Your heart is broken, your dreams in ruins, but you still have to give birth. Some folks questioned at the time why they didn’t do a c-section so as to spare me from having to go through labor and delivery. As if the painful part was that I was in labor rather than that my baby was dead. In truth even if the hospital had offered c-section as an option I would have turned it down. The recovery takes longer, and I didn’t need a physical scar reminding me every day of the emotional scar I would carry.
I have 11 pictures from the hour after my son was born. That hour was the only bright spot in an otherwise impossibly dark ordeal. I got to see my son for the first time. I help him. I kissed him. I discovered that the going home outfit I’d picked was far too small and had to borrow an outfit from the nurses; he looked adorable in it. That hour is the only hour in my entire life that I will spend in the same room as my oldest son and it is one of the most precious memories of my life. And at the end of it I forced myself to give him to the nurse to take away for an autopsy and cremation. I never saw him again.
A day later when I was being released from the hospital the nurse told me, “next comes the hard part.” I couldn’t conceive of what she was talking about. The hard part was my son dying. But her words proved prophetic. Because living through the grief was nothing but a collection of hard parts, starting from arriving home and walking into the fully set up nursery all ready for the baby who would never need it. The days and weeks blur together but from what I remember it’s clear that my grasp on sanity was tenuous. For the first week or so every time the phone rang my first thought was it was the hospital calling to tell me they had made a mistake and my baby was alive and I needed to come get him. I refused to answer the phone or door or to reply to any messages of support left online; I didn’t speak to anyone but my husband for about a month. At night when I slept I had vivid dreams, dreams of myself returning toys to a toy store, dreams of myself at the library during the mother’s day storytime, etc; each dream was unique but in all of them I was sobbing with a ferocity that could not be contained. I remember that when we left the house for the first time, to go to Target to purchase storage containers so we could pack up the baby’s things, the woman at the counter put her hand on my still very large stomach and suggested I should sign up for a Target card because I’d need it to buy all those diapers in the future. I remember that one time I was feeling a little better and so decided we should go out for a hike, until moments before we were to leave and the phone rang to let us know our son’s ashes were ready for us to pick up. Just like that the baby I spent 9 months growing was reduced to a box the size of a computer mouse.
There is nothing that makes you feel better after your son dies. Nothing except time. You just have to live through it. But slowly you do recover. You go back to work. You remember how to think about other things. At some point you realize you’ve made it through a whole day without crying (it took months). But the recovery process is so much slower for you than it is for the rest of the world. I may not have been crying every day, but it was over a year before I stopped randomly breaking into tears while out for a walk or driving my car. I hated every single baby who was born for the 3 months before my son through the 12 months after him. I still can’t bring myself to wish any of those babies or their parents a happy birthday. In fact, to this day I have to force myself to congratulate people who are pregnant; I’m not sure if the temptation to think “maybe” to every pregnancy will ever fully disappear. But nothing was harder for me than the pregnancy of my second son. By the end of that pregnancy I went to bed every night wondering if that would be the night my son died, and woke up every morning unable to get out of bed until I felt him move. If you take nothing else away from this post, please take my plea to never, ever ask a pregnant woman if a pregnancy is her first. That question haunted me while I was pregnant with my younger son and I never did figure out whether I was supposed to pretend my older son didn’t exist or launch into a tearful explanation of his death to the random stranger in line behind me at Starbucks.
Today is my son’s fourth birthday. By 4 most children have mastered speaking in full, mostly grammatically correct, English sentences that are fully understandable by all adults. They are able to name friends. Ride bikes (with training wheels). Skip. Throw. Catch. Tell a joke (that is maybe even funny). 4 year olds are almost done with their toddlerhood and moving towards being more independent big kids who can dress, eat, bathe, etc all by themselves.
But not my son. My son was born exactly on his due date on January 5, 2011, but it was a day too late. He was cheated of the life I wish with all my being I could give him. Cheated out of even hearing me just one time tell him that I love him. He died without ever living a single moment, but he was still born. My beloved baby boy. My Griffin.