[Note to readers: This has been the hardest post for me to write. It may be the same to read. Just thought you should know.]
Sean and I both feel very lucky to live in the time and place we do.
Here in Ontario, in 2011, if an extra ultrasound is offered or asked for, it is covered by OHIP. If I’d actually had to pay $75-$150 to have a follow-up ultrasound for echogenic bowel, especially since we were told it rarely amounts to anything, we simply wouldn’t have done it. It was a fluke that we had a test at that specific time. I would have gone to the midwife that day and my appointment would have been totally unremarkable: my abdomen was the right size, my blood pressure was good, the heartbeat sounded just as it should have, and palpation of the baby indicated he was normal size.
My next appointment would have been two weeks later (this week, actually). I shudder to think of how long it might have taken for me to realize, on my own, that there was no more movement.
Also, in Ontario in 2011, midwives are covered by OHIP and have hospital privileges. They, and the doctors and nurses at the hospital, know how to recognize and validate the grief of the parents of a stillborn child. A few decades ago, I don’t think they would have let me hold Sebastian for very long, if at all; one of the books we were kindly given (Empty Cradle, Broken Heart by Deborah L. Davis), begins with a poem written by the mother of a baby who died almost immediately after being born, in 1968. She didn’t get to touch or hold her son – she barely even got to look at him.
I am so grateful that I got to spend time with mine, in the company of my husband, and the nurse and the midwife.
(Apparently Dr. P did come in at some point to lay hands on the baby and the placenta, since as an induction it was a transfer of care – but I was pretty blurry so I don’t remember seeing him until the next morning.) B, our midwife, knew just what to say, exclaiming over what a cute and beautiful baby Sebastian was, at the same time as she got on with the business that needed doing. I know, from conversations since then, how invested the midwives are in their clients and the babies they deliver. It’s very difficult and emotional for them too, in sad situations like these, but you would never know. B managed to be both sympathetic and uplifting, never betraying how hard it was for her. I have no idea how they do this – especially on so little sleep – but again… so grateful.
And it was true, my second son was a sweet-looking baby. He had spent such a short time in there without a heartbeat that he was still mostly pink – only some bruising on his head from the breech birth. He was still warm from my body. He was tiny, but not abnormally so, as the ultrasound had said – he was over four pounds, the right size for his age. He had hair – not flaxen, like E’s, but darker reddish-brown. And he had the same mouth as his father and his brother – darkened because of the lack of circulation, but just the same shape.
After Sean cut the cord, B examined Sebastian and the placenta, and could find no immediate red flags that would explain why he died. The was a clot in the cord, she said, but that might have occurred before or after death. She also took one of his footprints, and we took quite a few pictures. That was something the midwives had recommended: “Even if you don’t think you want them, you might wish you had them later.” We knew we would want them anyway. It’s another thing that seems morbid, to take photos of such a tragic event, but if that’s all you have… well, let’s just say ultrasound printouts simply don’t cut it. Especially for a sentimental, compulsive archivist like me.
For some of the photos, Sebastian was wearing a little white knitted cap and jacket, and wrapped in a beautiful baby-size blue-and-yellow quilt. I don’t know who makes these – I’m guessing they’re donated to the hospital – but I was thankful for them.
The most beautiful photo is of Sean cradling his son, looking into his little face.
By four in the morning, we were all spent. My drugged eyelids would not stay open anymore. I had finally stopped shivering (those shivers from labour kept coming back in waves) with heated blankets the nurse put on me. B went home, Sean set up the godawful pullout chair, we turned out the lights. The nurse brought in the bassinet in case we wanted to put Sebastian there while we slept, but I knew I needed to keep him in my arms. I wasn’t able to leave E in the bassinet by himself for very long when he was born either… after having a baby inside your body for so long, the separation feels extreme… and with Sebastian, I knew I wouldn’t get another chance.
Sebastian’s birthday dawned bright and breezy and full of birdsong. We slept until eight – not a deep sleep, but enough. A nurse came in to let us know someone would be coming to take some of my blood (because of my negative blood type, I would be needing a shot of Rhogam – I did end up with several holes in my arms that morning).
We were also given information for a funeral home nearby. We hadn’t known until now (and why would we?) that all stillborn babies, after a certain age, go to a funeral home where the death is registered and all that. We were also informed of the bereavement services through the chaplaincy at the hospital – they could have someone come to talk to us if we wanted. I did want to speak to someone. The drugs had worn off, and the reality of this was starting to hurt: pretty soon, I was going to have to let go of my son. I would have to give him to someone else, and probably never hold him again. Maybe never even see him. How is a person supposed to do that?
The post-birth serenity had mostly dissipated, replaced by tears. I hadn’t cried at all the night before, but this morning was different. I spent a lot of time just looking at Sebastian, stroking his indescribably soft cheek, which was now cool. We talked to him a little bit and told him we loved him. We each gave him a kiss. I felt sorry, because it should have been thousands of kisses, distributed over lots of round, healthy, warm baby parts (I’ve never been able to stop giving E way too many kisses, in his whole life)… but that was the same reason I was only able to give him one.
Sean was downstairs feeding the meter when our morning nurse came in again, accompanied by the pastor from bereavement services. I hate to be uncharitable here, but I can’t help the bluntness in this instance: I can only say that my soul recoiled from her. I don’t know why – I’m usually very open to people, especially those I know have good intentions. In this case, though, I immediately regretted asking for her, and wanted to send her away – but I’ve never been someone who could do that.
Unfortunately, this feeling only intensified. It wasn’t funny – I was miserable at the time – but talking about it later with Sean did provide us with a much-needed chuckle. (Maybe that’s why she was sent to us – the comic relief fairy.) It was just too bizarre: here was this short woman with a grey buzz-cut, long purple fingernails, a vaguely British accent, the raspy voice and advanced wrinkles of a longtime smoker, and too-intense black-lined turquoise eyes I found I couldn’t look at directly.
Poor woman. She was just doing her job, I guess. She came to my side and began repeatedly stroking Sebastian’s tiny arm outside the quilt. I think it was supposed to be soothing, but I wanted to bat her hand away. “This is so painful for you,” she told me. Um. No response to that. (I imagine she was trained to “acknowledge the bereaved person’s pain” – check.) She asked if baby had a name. Through tears, I told her it was Sebastian. “Strong name,” she intoned. Then, “He’ll always be precious.” I could only nod, feeling ridiculous. (I friggin’ know that, thanks.)
There were awkward silences between platitudes. (I’m a Quaker, I like silence. But these were awkward.) Then she asked, “What would you like me to do?” Seriously?? Aren’t you supposed to know what to do? When I did not have any bright ideas, she suggested, “Would you like me to bless baby?”
I had been a little worried something like this might come up, since the chaplaincy is a religious organization. It’s not that I don’t believe in blessings – I certainly do. But how is this woman, who knows nothing about me or my family or our spiritual values (and to whom I feel an inexplicable aversion), qualified to bless my son? I shook my head and managed, “I think he’s already blessed.” She agreed that of course he was.
I think by now she had transferred the rhythmic stroking to my shin, still covered by hospital blankets. “Would you like me to name baby?” At this point, I almost did laugh, in spite of the situation. I just told you his name, lady. Yes, I’m sure she meant some kind of official name-giving moment, but again – this wasn’t going to work for me.
It was around this point that Sean finally came back. I hoped he could tell by my eyes that I was desperate to get rid of this well-meaning, unhelpful person. I don’t remember exactly what else was said… She must have asked me what I wanted to talk about or something, because I did give it the old college try, telling her I didn’t know how I was supposed to say goodbye to my son and not see him again. She assured me that this didn’t have to be the end, and said something about embalming.
As soon as possible after that, we managed to tell her that we needed some time alone. She did come back a bit later to check on us, and again we said we were okay on our own. She left us her card, just in case. To be honest, I think she was a bit relieved.
We had already decided to go with cremation, after an autopsy – details that are painfully, grimly practical and unromantic but that must be dealt with. I can imagine why people are hesitant to choose autopsy on a baby – you don’t want to think of that small, sweet human cut open – but we were (and still are) hoping there might be clues as to what happened. And we have been told that the pathologists leave as few marks as possible.
By 10:30 we were starting to think about logistics. Sean had already fed the meter a couple times, we had called home to hear that E was doing fine (first morning ever waking up without Mommy or Daddy) and were feeling the need to go home and hug him… but I had yet to let go of Sebastian. Sean had wisely suggested I could give the baby to him to give to the nurse – he knew it would be easier for me to put our son in the arms of his father – but I still told him I needed a few more minutes, I wasn’t ready.
The thing is, I would never have been ready. Our nurse had said there was no rush, to just take our time… but I could have taken all day and still not been ready. When Sean said it was time, I wanted to just hold Sebastian against my heart… and keep him. I can still feel that longing, the emptiness in my arms where he was. I still cannot think of that moment without crying.
But I did it. Sean was very gentle but insistent. Thank goodness he was strong enough, since I was not even close to strong enough by myself. We were both in tears as the nurse tenderly put Sebastian in the bassinet to take him away. Sean told me he’s not really gone – we’ll always remember him so he’ll always be with us. I know this is true. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it from the pastor, but from my beloved husband and partner in grief, it was a comfort I could hang on to.
Our nurse was great that day. She was probably in her forties, obviously has been doing this a long time, because she knew exactly what to say – and what not to say. She had lost a baby too, once upon a time. She gave me ibuprofen for the cramps (no serious pain this time – unlike after E’s birth, I had no stitches to heal), and advised me to ice my breasts as soon as my milk started to come in, in a couple days. Everything she said was full of sympathy without being patronizing or banal.
We were preparing to leave when G, the other midwife who had been with us the day before, came in to talk to us. After the bereavement services experience, it was so good to see her. (B wasn’t able to make it, still catching up on well-deserved sleep.) She talked to us about how we were feeling and what the next steps were. How was she so much better at this than the person who ostensibly trained to do it? Just gifted with people, I guess.
She accompanied us out of the Family Birthing Unit. That was good, because it was a short but difficult walk. We were being as calm and impassive as possible, so as not to freak out any of the new parents, checking out at the nurse’s station with their squeaky clean car seats full of new baby. How well I remember that moment, leaving the hospital with E, walking gingerly out into a world that seemed like a different place now that this tiny new person was in it. How odd to leave empty-handed this time. How odd to be those people – people with a dove marker on their hospital door, people whose pain you don’t want to imagine.
Upon arriving home, we were deeply glad to see our smiling, chattering little boy. Auntie Beth and D had taken good care of him, of course. Soon we were joined by Auntie Em and my parents. I finally understood why people have wakes – it always seemed to me a strange idea to want lots of people around when you’re grieving, but now, I felt the support of our family bolstering us up. They made sure E was entertained, they gave hugs, they took care of dinner. They did dishes and pulled weeds. They went and bought sand to put in E’s sandbox. Most importantly, they let us be however sad or not sad we were at any given moment.
That was two weeks ago today.