Update: I wrote the following a year ago after a friend suffered a horrible loss. It sat in Drafts, unpublished, until today. Sweet baby girl would have been a year old.
The baby passed away Saturday. It is Monday, two days later. It is easier to write the facts because the feelings get tangled somewhere between my heart, my brain, and my mouth. They ooze into place, they swell and won’t budge. It hurts. Pressure builds. My lip begins to quiver. My chin shakes. My throat feels oddly swollen. My eyes fill and I can’t see.
I try to speak but nothing comes out. I remember her picture, her beautiful face. The tears spill over.
The baby died Saturday. I am taken aback….
September 1988–one month pre-birth
“You’re due on about the 19th, but we can schedule it for the 12th. The doctor will be out of town on the 19th.”
Unless I’d switched doctors, I don’t recall feeling like I had a choice, a choice about the day of delivery. Who switches doctors that late in the game? In hindsight, not switching could well have been a fatal error.
But, we trusted. Every parent wants to think their doctor acts in their best interests, that he or she advises the soon-to-be parents to the best of their ability. In most cases, this is no doubt true.
I’ll take to my grave that we were not better advised in ours.
October 11, 1988–bedtime, the night before
“Do you think everything is going to be OK?” I asked my husband as I crawled into bed.
“Yes,” he stated, most assuredly.
Call it what you will, a mother’s intuition, but I knew. On some level, I knew.
I was already a mother. This was baby #2. Baby #1, 27 months prior, was born after 22 hours of labor. He didn’t want to exit the conventional way, so we met all 9 pounds and 2 ounces, all 20 1/2 inches of him, the unconventional way. We had to have a cesarean. Too much time had elapsed, the baby was too large, mama had grown weary.
With one cesarean under my belt and given the size of #2–not to mention our doctor was leaving–a week before the due date, on advice, we were scheduled for surgery.
And something felt wrong.
October 12, 1988–a week pre-due date
At precisely 8:05 a.m., we met all 8 pounds and 9 1/2 ounces, all 22 inches of baby #2. No two parents could have been happier. Big brother now had a little brother, and our family was growing. I had two little boys. I’d never seen anything more beautiful.
A little over an hour after his birth I held him for the first time. Little did I know it would be days before I would hold him again. Within hours, our infant’s life was on the line.
They told me I would see him before the transport. I heard it coming down the hall. The mobile unit keeping him alive buzzed and hummed. They parked him next to my bed.
I could only talk to him, touch his tiny hand.
Stay strong, little one. I love you.
After several minutes, they took him away, rushed him by ambulance to the NICU. A mere 20 hours after his birth, mother and baby were in two separate hospitals. Aside from giving birth, I had a hernia repair, an appendectomy, and a tubal. I was flat on my back, without my baby.
I was dumbfounded, and recall thinking, “YOU are asking ME?” I was speechless.
We’d relied on his expertise. We’d followed his advice. We’d nearly lost our son.
Andrew hadn’t been in the womb long enough for his lungs to fully develop. The effort it took to breathe punctured tiny holes in his lungs. Both had collapsed. Double pneumothorax is the medical term. He could inhale, but he couldn’t use the air; it simply filled up his chest cavity. A ventilator kept him alive, forcing 100 beats of air per minute into his tiny lungs, the goal, of course, to keep a steady supply of oxygen to the brain. A small tube was inserted in the side of his chest to release the inhaled air. They administered drugs to keep him paralyzed, keep him immobile during the procedures.
The double pneumothorax wasn’t the worst if it, we were told. The baby went into persistent fetal circulation (PFC) from the trauma, a condition more dangerous than collapsed lungs. Essentially, the baby’s system shuts down, reverts back to the circulatory system experienced when mom’s body was in charge. After a severe trauma, sometimes babies give up.
Andrew’s home for the next month was the NICU, and our days became a blur of hospital visits, test after test, and paralyzing anxiety. Every time the phone rang, I started to shake. Mama was falling apart.
It became a waiting game. He had given up, and my anxiety was growing by the day. Our beautiful baby was fighting for his life, and I was a wreck.
To their credit, the NICU nurses were fabulous. They see it every day; they recognize a parent who is about to crash and burn. One of them decided to reach out. She’d been watching me.
One evening, as I stood at Andrew’s bedside, she approached.
“There is a support group for the parents,” she said.
I could only stare.
“It’s a time for the parents to get together and talk about what has happened,” she added.
I said nothing.
“If you want the information, let me know.” She walked away, but I will never forget my next thoughts:
That is the DUMBEST idea I have ever heard. I have a husband and two year old at home, and you want me to waste my time sitting around, talking with complete strangers? This useless conversation has forced me to take my eyes off of my baby. Stupid woman. What is WRONG with her? Idiot.
Of course, I was the dummy. I should have listened and gone to the meetings. Over the next two years, I’d become a train wreck. The shock and pain of our experience sent me into a rapid, downward spiral. I did not talk when I should have; I realized–years later–I’d been propelled into the dreary world of depression. I simply could not think about me, could not take care of myself. I stuffed it down so far I figured it was gone for good. Wrong.
I had a very ill baby. That was my only concern.
One of those same nurses, thankfully, said something that–while I was loathe to admit at the time, and a hope I’d fiercely clung to–got me through.
“You know, when these little guys start to turn around, they do it pretty quickly.”
Another idiot. I’ll believe that when I see it.
She, too, was right.
Andrew soon began to need less and less help breathing, his numbers were good, he was very responsive. He seemed to like us, voices, touch, and food. He was coming alive.
His cheeks pinked up. He began to open his eyes.
He started to look healthier, less puffy from the trauma.
By day 16, he was looking at us, smiling, and chewing on his fingers.
We were able to take our baby home. We were unbelievably lucky. We know.
In no way do I pretend to understand the pain of losing a baby. It isn’t the same.
But I know the fear. I know the anxiety, the depression, the body shakes. I know the sleepless nights; I’d become a walking zombie. It scared me more than I can describe. It was the worst thing I’d ever experienced. It happened 26 years ago, but I will never forget. I cannot. He has been my teacher, my reminder.
Another mama’s baby died last Saturday. She was beautiful. Aside from the joy she brought her family, baby girl served a purpose to this mother, to me. Her mama is my friend and I ache for her, but sweet baby girl is my reminder.
She reminded me how precious life is, how fragile, elusive, slippery. She has taught us what matters, each other and to keep on loving. It’s seared on our hearts.
She is forever a part of us. Of me.
Rest in peace, sweet baby. You touched my heart.
I carry your imprint. ❤
Illustration and Footsteps book credits.