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STILL MY FIRST BORN

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A mother’s story of gratitude and loss.

Resting comfortably in bed, I felt a funny flutter in my lower belly. Giggles bubbled out of me after I realized I was feeling my baby move for the first time — and on Mother’s Day, no less. With no morning sickness and a passed glucose test, I was having the sort of beautiful pregnancy I’d been dreaming about for a very long time.  

After an ultrasound confirmed what I was convinced of, that my baby was a boy, my husband and I bought a book of names and took it to a coffee shop to figure out what to call this wee laddy of ours. We were on our way. 

I wanted this baby so badly. I had spent years watching marathon episodes of pregnancy and baby shows. I had studied my reflection with a pillow stuffed up my shirt trying to imagine what I would look like all swollen with fecundity. There was no one who knew more about current safety ratings for car seats and pediatrician-recommended sleeping practices. I was in love with this little guy from the very beginning. I even had his first Halloween costume picked out; he was going to be a lobster.

Everything was coming together so nicely. My husband had a job — with health insurance — and was finishing up his Ph.D. We had found our dream home — I’d wanted a Sears Roebuck kit house since forever — and the renovations were coming along swimmingly. My own little world was filled to the brim with beauty, exuberance for the future and a somewhat smug self-confidence that I was doing everything right — from the vitamins, to the house, to the yoga, to the midwife. I even had a minivan.   

Looking back, I can see that it was a difficult year for a good portion of the globe. The Pacific coastlines were just ravaged by an epic tsunami, Pope John Paul had died, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Rita was on the way.   

I sent in my obligatory Red Cross donations and looked on with sadness. I pitied those poor, poor people and all that they had lost and suffered. How tragic for them. But I didn’t know. I didn’t have a clue what true loss felt like. 

Frankly, at the front of my mind were the thank-you cards I needed to get in the mail from my perfect baby shower, and the blue fingerling potatoes I needed to buy for the red, white and blue potato salad I was bringing to a party the next day.   

After scouring the city, I found the potatoes, which would just be one less thing to worry about that busy weekend. So my husband and my cumbersome, pregnant self settled in that Friday with nothing more than an evening of TV on the agenda. I was officially 37 weeks along. I had made it to full term.    

The next morning, my baby boy wasn’t moving as much as usual. I looked it up online and was reassured that the slowing of movements meant the baby was engaging in the pelvis and labor was approaching. So I made the potato salad, we went to the party and talked about the baby and came home and went to bed. The next day brought more unease, but just enough movement from my son to put the scary thoughts out of my mind.  

Sunday night was different, though. I had a dream that my son had died. In the dream, I went to the midwife’s office and they informed me that they couldn’t find the heartbeat.  My eyes shot open at 7:30 a.m. Monday. I threw on some clothes, grabbed my keys and went straight to the medical center, telling my husband that I was probably worrying over nothing but needed reassurance that everything was OK. I got to the medical center and they examined me. 

The nurse couldn’t find my baby’s heartbeat. 

I lay on my side dumbstruck as the nurse tried to offer hope that maybe he was just turned funny. They took me into the ultrasound room where, when I was there last, I saw my little baby wave.  

This time was different. I saw his silent heart. The world was falling away. I couldn’t breathe and tears started to stream down my face before she told me what I already knew: My son was dead.   

There I was on the table with my still baby in my womb, a place where I thought I could keep him safe, and I had failed. I had failed as a mom, as a woman, as a wife. It felt like my heart had been freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen; it was crumbling away. I think I started to howl. 

Before I knew what was happening, my husband, breaking all legal speed limits, was at my side, rocking me in his arms as I soaked both our shirts with the beginnings of what would be a months-long deluge of tears.  

In a haze of horror and soul-shredding anguish, plans were made to induce delivery at the hospital the following day. My husband drove me home where my mom and mother-in-law showed up, instantly flanking me with hugs and tears of their own. They took me to bed where I sobbed myself to sleep, and before I awoke, the flowers had already started to arrive. 

I had so many questions. What would they do with his body? Do we still get to name him? He has a name. Do we have a funeral? I have milk in the fridge I bought when he was alive that hasn’t even expired yet. Why did he die? Why is this happening to me? I want my baby boy. 

My husband made all of the calls to our family. I am eternally grateful to him for that kindness -— I wouldn’t have intelligibly made it through call number one. My father-in-law stuffed his still-wet laundry into his suitcase and flew straight up from Florida, and the family started to gather. 

My husband and I — both of us coming from families who valued the “look it up” ethos — researched what to do when you deliver a stillborn baby. You take pictures, snip a lock of hair and collect whatever mementos you can because you only get one chance. 

When we went to check in at the maternity desk that Tuesday, we were greeted with smiles by the staff. Clutching the two pillows I had brought from home, my face crumbled yet again into a broken mess of mucous and tears. It was then they knew just who I was and ushered us into the quiet room away from the nursery — the room with the purple leaf placard attached to the door. I remembered that from the hospital tour from a couple of weeks earlier. That was how the rooms of the bereaved moms were designated, and now I was one of them. 

The following day, at 4:14 p.m., I delivered my son. Our families and friends had gathered in the waiting room earlier in the day and drifted in and out of our room to cry with us and talk and offer whatever support they could. 

The sun was streaming in through the western window on the left wall when my son was brought into the world. His, physically, was an easy delivery, and the midwife held him up in a stream of sunlight and quickly placed him on my chest. He was so beautiful. My heart exploded with a new capacity for love, which I had not previously experienced. It was matched only by my newfound capacity for loss. At that moment, it was as if my very being was woven and bound with ribbons of absolute joy and absolute sorrow, forged from every color of the spectrum. 

We had some time together, just the three of us, before our family came in to hold him, weep and comment on his obvious good looks. He had his mommy’s auburn hair — and lots of it. His little body was warm and it was impossible not to think there had been some kind of mistake and that he would open his eyes and start to cry. But it was a very quiet room. 

We took pictures and had a little mold of his hand taken. We clipped locks of hair and named him. With the help of family and friends, we chose a beautiful cemetery for his burial where they have a baby section. We felt he’d be less lonely there. 

The morning of his service, I slipped on my black maternity dress and pulled a brush haphazardly through my hair. At his funeral, I sat by his tiny casket, carefully placed at the front of a little stone chapel at the cemetery. The smell of lilies hung heavily in the air and, combined with my tears that just wouldn’t stop, made it difficult to breathe. 

I turned to go back to my seat in the front row where I was greeted by a small army of distraught faces reflecting my own grief. There were hugs and condolences, more tears and tissues, followed by a beautiful oration by a kind man who had recently endured the death of his young adult son. How he survived his loss, I can only guess. 

After watching my son being born into the earth, we went to the after-funeral gathering where I continued to leak both more tears and breast milk. My body didn’t know there was no baby to feed. In fact, my head was having a difficult time wrapping itself around the notion as well. 

Had the previous eight months really happened? I had all the doctor’s visits, the baby shower, the outfits, the toys, the books, the co-sleeper, the breast pump, the strollers, the maternity clothes, the onesies, the dreams, the hopes, the imaginings of the future — but there I was without my baby.   

I had the irrational certainty that I could somehow go back in time and save him — he had been alive just a week earlier. Yet, with every passing moment he was slipping further and further away. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how I felt, that I could somehow stretch my arm back far enough in time to snatch him from that fate, saving us both.   

As the weeks passed, more flowers were delivered to our door. The delivery person stopped ringing the bell early on and quietly deposited them on the porch. Food came in a steady stream. Sympathy cards piled up on the dining room table. I was amazed and humbled by the outpouring of concern and love from everyone in our lives, some of whom I didn’t even personally know.   

It’s seven years later and I still cry. I love my son so much; and I’m so thankful I now have a young daughter who asks her mommy why we can’t take a hot air balloon to go bring her baby brother home — although, as a parent, it would be so much easier to tell her where babies come from than to explain where they go when they die.  

I never did get those thank-you cards sent out. So this is my attempt at thanks. Thank you to my friends, family and my husband. Without their support and love there is no way I could have survived.

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