Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 40-44
I woke up feeling not too great. The weight of the baby pulled at my back and sides. In the past couple of weeks it had been getting harder to turn over in bed. I wasn’t that big yet, but all the weight was so concentrated and unbalanced. I lay there, feeling woozy. What was going on? Aches and pains had settled everywhere during the night. My calves ached, my back ached, my neck ached. My head was heavy.
I got up. The bathroom was warm and steamy, and Alain was shaving. I leaned against the doorjamb. "Don’t feel so good," I mumbled.
"I don’t know. Maybe I’m coming down with something."
"You’d better take it easy today."
I decided to take a shower anyway. The water streamed over my rounded body. Pregnancy gave me a whole new self: my hair had doubled its volume, my nails grew faster than I could trim them. Everything was pumped up and primed with new life, blossoming. Now, however, the body was heavy, achy, woozy.
I cupped my hands around my smooth, full middle. "What’s going on, little one?"
"What did you say?" said Alain, putting away his after–shave lotion in the medicine chest.
"I was talking to the baby. He isn’t mov . . ."
What? What was I saying? Shake off that thought. I patted my hands briskly on top of my tummy. "Come on. Come on. Wake up!" They sleep and they wake, just like we do. They wake when we sleep and jump and stretch and turn. Then they sleep a lot when we move around. He was only sleeping.
I came out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel. Alain was looking at me, frowning. "Are you all right?"
"I’m sick. I’ll go back to bed for a few hours."
"Call me if you need me. And call the doctor."
I lay there, feeling worse as the hours went by. By one o’clock, I realized I had a fever. I took my temperature. A hundred and two degrees. I called the doctor. "Probably just the flu," she said. "There’s flu going around. Drink fluids, stay in bed. Take care of yourself." The doctor’s name was Shelley. My age, or maybe younger. Very casual, very laid back. All her patients called her by her first name.
At three o’clock, I started shaking. Chills and fever. Time to call the doctor again. "Shelley’s not here. But we paged her at the hospital and she says to stop by the office. Someone here will check you out." The office was a block away. I put on a dress, sleeveless, flowered. It was August 24, warm and sunny.
A nurse snapped commands at me. "Get on the table. Lie down. You don’t have a fever. You’re not sick." Was she crazy? Gone were the chummy conversations of the regular staff, of Shelley. Instead we had some female commandant, barking orders and flexing her authority. "The baby’s not moving," I blurted out.
"Yes it is," she replied. Who was this woman? Where had they found her? I was passive, conciliatory. "Well, I thought he wasn’t moving. And I have had a fever. It comes in waves, then I get chilled."
"The baby’s fine. Get up. You can go."
These are the words that would burn in the mind. These are the seeds of rage. There were to be many more before he died, and was born.
The long afternoon wore on. From the bed, I move to the living room couch. I pull a blanket over me, push it off. Fever mounts, sweat soaks the couch. Every muscle seems to be curling in on itself, contracting around the sickness. The body is fighting hard. The little man inside is fighting even harder, but I don’t know that. That ignorance would pound me with grief and guilt, much later. What could anyone have done? Who knows? But the guilt I would later feel had little basis in logic: the heart has its reasons, for guilt as for love as for rage. I kept no loving vigil, I did nothing to stave off death.
Third call to the doctor. "This flu," she says, "everybody has it. Just everybody. Did you take some Tylenol? Remember, Tylenol only, no aspirin." I go back to bed. Now it’s seven o’clock. More chills and shaking. I get up to go to the bathroom. I have to hold onto the walls as I move. Suddenly, there is blood.
I stumble out of the bathroom just as Alain is walking in the apartment door.
He reacts with great urgency, which frightens me even more. When I see Alain’s set face and hear his taut voice, I start to panic a little. He calls the doctor, then puts me on the phone with Shelley.
"Well, I think you’d better come down to the hospital. I’ll take a look at you. I’m here."
On the elevator up to the maternity floor, I can hardly stand. I lean against the elevator wall and feel the sweat course down my face. It seems that each burning wave of fever leaves me more drained and shaking than the last. I disrobe, put on their little flowered smock with the silly ties in the back, and give them a urine sample in the bathroom next to the treatment room. More blood. "I’m bleeding," I say to the nurse. It seems very important to sound calm and controlled, so I keep my voice steady and informative. There is a tremendous pull to be a good and intelligent patient, and not to give anyone any trouble.
Now contractions are starting. Shelley appears, examines me, and announces that there is significant bleeding from the uterus. The baby’s heart is monitored, contractions are monitored, my blood pressure is monitored every fifteen minutes. I am in labor. The baby’s heart is beating very fast. I am twenty–eight weeks pregnant, and I am in active labor. No one has the slightest idea what is going on.
Shelley decides to give some medication to stop labor, and, finally, an antibiotic. She gives the nurse instructions, then leaves for the night. The monitors are removed. Alain offers to stay, but I tell him to go. The night nurse comes to give me a shot. Aftershocks of pain continue to pulse through me. I cry out involuntarily. "I haven’t even given you the second one yet," she says, and there is unmistakable fatigue and disdain in her voice.
She leaves. Everything is hurting, everything is dark. Machines are blinking. From another time and space come the faint noises of cars, taxis, buses. People are out there, moving around the city. I am so far from them, from everyone. I don’t know what’s going on in this room, in my body, and no one else does either. I am afraid. A cry rises up in my throat, something like a sob, but I control it. It seems important to stifle that sob.
And then he died, sometime during the quiet predawn hours. No one wept as he died. No one knew the precise moment when his heart renounced the struggle, and he gave up his spirit.
It is dawn. I lie there, in the little white room with the cabinets and machines, waiting for someone to appear. The weight of the baby is heavy on my back. My hands are held lightly around my womb. I notice that I have no fever. The morning nurse comes in, cheerful and friendly. She picks up the stethoscope and starts to search for the baby’s heartbeat. The room is silent.
"Where exactly were they picking up the heartbeat last night?" she asks.
"I don’t know. Down on the left side, I think."
"Hmmm . . . just a sec. Shelley’s in the hall, I’ll be right back."
Shelley and the nurse come in. Shelley is holding the Doppler ultrasound monitor—high–tech stuff that can pick up the heartbeat of an eight–week–old fetus. She moves the monitor over my belly, slowly, methodically. Up, down, across; up, down, across. No one speaks. She repeats the gestures, over and over again. I glance fleetingly at the nurse. Her face is lowered. Her eyes are fixed on the floor.
"Leah . . . these monitors . . . they’re very sensitive—extremely sensitive. We don’t . . . we’re not picking up any heart sounds."
Alain walks into the room. He takes one look. "What is it?"
"The baby’s heart has stopped." I say that very calmly, because I am calm. Nothing is real. There was a heartbeat, now there is none. There were some sounds in the universe, but now those sounds are still.
Alain leans over to hold me. The doctor is saying some things—not much more information—evidence of some infection, somewhere—she is sorry—I should go home and await the birth.
There is some kind of play going on, and nobody had given me the lines to learn. I don’t know what I am supposed to say or do. I am very removed, and for some reason, I still keep clinging to my insane desire to please everyone, to be polite, good, and cooperative. Okay. Yes. We’ll go home and await the birth. I guess I’ll call when contractions start again. Is that all right? Is that what I should do? What if they start in the middle of the night? Oh, sorry, silly question, I’ll call whenever they start. Yes, definitely, I will finish out these antibiotics: one three times a day for two more days. (Two days? said a doctor later. Two days? Infection strong enough to kill and you’re given antibiotics for two days? And then he stopped talking, abruptly.)
On that first day home, Alain and I move through our life carefully, delicately. We don’t know what to do or what to think. We don’t even know what to say to people. "The baby died, we’re waiting for him to be born"? The belly has become an embarrassment, something shockingly wrong. We don’t want people to see us. We go to get the antibiotics, then we go home. I lie on the bed and rest. In the afternoon, I get up and write in my diary, something about how the baby has died, and some sentences of farewell and resignation. They feel completely meaningless. I am not feeling a thing.
It is night. We go to bed. Alain used to kiss the baby goodnight. He used to lean over and lay his head on my middle, his arms cradling me. "Good night, baby," he would say. "Sleep tight. Don’t kick your mama too hard tonight"—and then we’d laugh because, sure enough, the baby would start jumping and thrashing around at the sound of his voice.
That first night, we went to bed, and neither one of us knew what to do. There was the lump that used to be "the baby," but it wasn’t the baby anymore. We didn’t have the words to talk about it. But as I lay back against the pillow, and turned quietly away from him, my heart started beating fast. There was something looming on the edges of my consciousness, but I didn’t want it to come any closer.
Suddenly a whisper rose unbidden from my heart: "Good night, baby." I wanted silence. Stonily, I turned to fitful, fearful sleep. But the whisper rose again, even as my mind tried to crush the words: "Good night, little one." And then, with a thrill of fear: "Farewell, beloved."
The next day, we went to a church. We were vaguely wondering what we should do when the baby was born. Should we bury it? Should we baptize it? We talked to a priest. We didn’t know him and he didn’t know us. We were not rooted in any religious community then. We stumbled into his church, and demanded that he say the right words to us at a time when neither he nor we could know how heavily these decisions would weigh.
"Don’t think of it as anything but an operation," he said. "Don’t bury it or baptize it. It will only increase the pain." He’s right, I thought, even as a more cynical thought nudged its way in: an "operation"? What does this guy know about childbirth? But Alain and I decided to agree with him. We didn’t really care one way or another about burial or ritual. The fetus was dead. The sooner its body was taken care of the better.
Labor started again that evening. All night long, the long birth pangs continued. I thought of nothing but surviving the physical pain. No drugs, no anesthesia, no epidural, no cute breathing exercises—none of us was focusing on this as a "normal" birth. I think we were all concentrating on one thing only: get it over with, get the fetus out of there, and move on.
Finally, he was born. "Push," said Shelley one last time, and he was out. Silence. She cut and clamped the cord. She wrapped him in a towel, wiped the blood off his face, and closed his eyes.
"Do you want to hold him?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. I was exhausted.
She placed him in my arms. Alain stood beside me, next to the narrow bed. I took the baby into the crook of my elbow, and felt the weight of his body against me.
I raised one hand, and cupped it around his tiny head. There was a kind of downy hair on his head. I touched the swirling soft pattern with the tips of my fingers. I caressed his head, then his cheek. I stared into a perfect face.
His eyes were closed. I touched the lids, then bent to kiss them: first one, then the other. He looked asleep. There was a dimple in his chin; the little mouth was shaped like his father’s. A rosebud mouth, so still and quiet.
No cry, no sound, my son?
I ran my hand down from his shoulder to his hand. I picked up that hand, and stared at the fingers. They were feather–light. Each had a tiny, pink, translucent nail. The little hand curled softly around my finger. I had never known such vulnerability, such fragility. I am holding your hand, little one. You are so small, and I am here. I am your mother. I am a mother. To you. You are my son.
I cradled his head closer, closer. My hand cupped his face. He was silent, still. His weight was in my arms. The weight of his body, his face, his hand, his fingers—these stay with me, forever.
I looked up. Alain looked stricken. "I can’t hold him," I said, flatly. I meant: I will not hold him in this life. He is gone from me. I will not be able to hold my baby.
Shelley thought I meant "I can’t bear to hold him," and immediately came over and took him out of my arms. She wrapped the towel around him more firmly. She wrapped it all the way around him, and covered his face. She laid him on top of a cart, covered with shiny instruments. She turned to the nurse.
"Take this to Pathology. Tell them to send me a report."
The nurse complied. She wheeled the cart out of the room. And that was our farewell.
The day wore on. My heart went into a fluttering arrhythmia, clocked at two hundred beats a minute. Monitors, machines, cardiologists, ceaseless activity, everyone bent now on finding out "what was going on."
Nothing was going on. I had a minor heart condition which chose that moment to show up and deflect attention over to my heart, instead of to what had just happened to "the fetus." Nevertheless, Shelley and all the hospital personnel treated the tachycardia as though it were a full–fledged coronary, and we went through the rest of the day never once mentioning the stillbirth.
Finally, it is night. My heart has calmed down. I have been placed in a room on another floor, someone having kindly understood that the maternity wing was probably inappropriate at this time. Alain, exhausted, has gone home again, to an empty apartment and his own thoughts. My mother, on vacation in Vermont, has finally gotten through to me. She is crying. I say some things to comfort her, then hang up, turn out the light, and turn to sleep.
It is dark. There are no machines, no doctors, no nurses, no one to be polite to, no heart problem to talk about and explain, no husband to hover worriedly over my bed, no tests, no monitors.
There is no baby.
There, in the dark, it hits me. The grief is a physical thing. It comes in waves—wave after wave, shocking my spirit, shattering my heart. I curl my body around its emptiness. Its center is gone. Its womb is empty. My arms are empty.
But you were here! I held you! Where have you gone, beloved? Where are you, my little son?
There is no one in the room with me, but even so, I try to muffle the wrenching sobs. His vulnerability, his fragility, his weight are more than I can bear. I feel him in my arms, but he is not here. My son. I am a mother, but my child is gone. Where are you? He is not here, but I cannot let him go. Who is holding that hand? On what breast are you cradled tonight? Are you afraid, wherever you are? Are you crying? Is someone there to hold you? Please God, hold him, rock him, cradle him, soothe him, whisper to him, caress him. Love him for me, please God.
The storm passes, but I am changed forever. It sufficed to hold him, to look into his face, and he entered my heart forever. I am a mother, and my son has died. Where there was no knowledge of him before, now there is a river, coursing through my mind and heart, bearing the memory and the loss of him forever.
For the first few months, the river is a torrent, crashing through my life, shattering friendships, straining family ties, reconfiguring my marriage, leaving devastation everywhere. People say the most painful things, and I have no words to make them understand. "You’ll have another." "It was probably for the best." All these statements seem to spring from a similar source: the speaker’s desire to minimize the trauma—for me, he thinks, not understanding that he is also minimizing it for himself. He cannot see what there is to grieve about. He cannot imagine "the baby," and therefore there is nothing to mourn. What’s more, he finds reasons why the stillbirth was a "good thing."
This is not malevolent behavior. People genuinely think they are helping when they tell me that "You’ll have plenty more." But the words wound, and they are relentless. "All better now?" chirps a friend ten days after the birth. "How’s your thesis progressing?" asks another, avoiding the subject altogether.
But if friends and casual acquaintances seem to lack understanding, the presumptions of the wider culture batter the heart of any woman who has ever mourned a pre–term child. A mother who mourns a pregnancy loss learns to carry her grief silently, as if ashamed of her sorrow. Who cares if a child dies before it is born? Aren’t there too many children in the world already? And who says she lost a real baby anyway? In reading through some insurance papers after the birth of our son, I stopped at one sentence, a description of how the pregnancy had ended. "Fetal Wastage" was the term.
We named our son Damien. We understood, too late, how healing and important are the rituals of death. We tried to find his body, to have him baptized and buried, but, true to the monumental mishandling they had displayed from the beginning, Shelley and the hospital staff had lost the baby’s body and had no records of where he had been taken. "Where are you?" became both a literal and figurative cry. My dreams were dominated for months by desperate searches, through darkness, through strange lands, with empty arms stretched out in front of stumbling feet.
Of course time heals, and grief gives way to peace. Slowly, I allowed myself to let him go, as I drew comfort and strength from art and song and prayer, those tentative human recreations of the sacred. I had a tape of the soprano Janet Baker. Her voice wove a gentle web of love around my child—the tremulous, reverent "Ave Maria" allowed another mother’s arms to take him up and hold him; the lullaby cadence of "Close Thine Eyes" permitted both censored grief and thwarted love to simply be, unhindered and unjudged:
Close thine eyes
And sleep secure
Thy soul is safe
Thy body’s sure
He that guards thee
He that keeps
Never slumbers, never sleeps
Then close thine eyes
And sleep secure.
Only through such rites and symbols could I begin to give him over into the arms of his Maker. Slowly, I allowed myself to turn back to this life, this time, this valley.
The river is calm now, its torrents still and peaceful. There are seeds to sow, harvests to reap, and work to do before our own nightfall. Gabriel, Christina, and Xavier have come to bless us. Their upturned faces and sweet eyes ground us, center us, and fill us with purpose. But Damien changed the landscape of my hopes and my dreams and my thoughts. My children speak of him naturally and happily, without the embarrassment or fear that so many adults feel in hearing his name. They expect to see him one day, "on that mountain," where every tear is washed away. He is not here, yet he is with us. I bear him forever, my firstborn son, and my children speak his name.
"Stillbirth." There is such paradox in the word, such death. The first syllable cancels out the second. All that newness, that unfurling life, is canceled out already, from the beginning. All that sweet force, gathering, gathering, month after month, now silent, still.
And yet, triumphing over that tragic paradox, I have found an astonishing, infinitely more paradoxical joy, embedded even in that memory of my first child, unmoving in my arms.
What possible joy? The realization, for me, of how strongly God loves us. Yes, loves us, all six billion—whatever—of us, teeming over the earth. I have come to understand the love for Damien that pierced my heart as a dim reflection of God’s love for us. Such love is instantaneous, it is absolute, it has no care for how many of us there are or what we have accomplished. It has no care for how long we have been alive. Young or old, sick or well, we are lovely in His sight, worthy to His heart. The love that overwhelmed me, even for a seven–month–old stillborn baby, also deepened my understanding, comforted me, and in the end, held up for me a mirror of the divine. Our capacity to grasp the humanity, the luminous beauty, of every child who comes into being is our capacity to love as God loves—with a strength that is primal, unreasonable, and unshakable.
God loves us as a mother loves her child—because we are there, because we are His, because we are ourselves: irreplaceable, forever unique, never, ever to be forgotten. "The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name" (Isaiah 49:1).
Leah Koncelik Lebec is a mother and a writer living in Connecticut. She has published several books and articles.